Fake Snow at Tempe Marketplace: Mystery Not Quite Revealed

A post in this blog about the fake snowfall each night at Tempe Marketplace received the following comment: 

My family ended up coughing our way out of the mall along with others trying to flee the snowy scene. Not sure it's exactly "safe" to breathe so I'm wondering what the other 10% is made of!

We can't tell if the commenter is for real about all the coughing and fleeing, but we wondered about that "other 10%," too.

After chatting with the guy who provides the faux snow for Tempe Marketplace, we're still wondering -- though we have a sneaking suspicion it's a type of soap.

Inventor Adam Williams of Magic Snow in California wouldn't tell us exactly what's in the fake flakes, saying it's a "proprietary formula."

In general, he writes in an e-mail:

The snow solution is comprised of 98% water and 2% cosmetic grade surfactant. The surfactants are vegetable based and environmentally friendly. It's a modified bubble solution used for special effects and films.

Um, okay, it's not a 10 percent mystery solution, just 2 percent. But what the hell is surfactant?

Turns out it's chemistry shorthand for "surface acting agent," or any substance that reduces the surface tension of water. Soap and fatty acids are types of surfactant, as well as toxic chemicals that obviously wouldn't be sprayed on folks for fun.

According to a Web site that touts a similar product, the fake snow is safe to consume -- and "even kosher." Magic Snow's site shows kids with their tongues out to catch the flaky surfactants.

Sorry. It's probably best not to think about it too much. -- Ray Stern

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern