It's Getting Hot In Here...
July in Nova Scotia is typically hot, but not typically this hot... We're currently suffering through some unpleasantly hot temperatures and it's having far reaching consequences that most people are unaware of. For example have you ever wondered how temperature and humidity effect soap making? Or how a heatwave can cause a small business like mine to grind to a halt? Well read on and you will see why the soap room here at Kaleidosoap has been unusually quiet this month.
Heat and Soap Making
Making soap is a complicated chemical process that has many factors that effect the final outcome. Heat is actually a really important factor and high ambient temperatures can easily destroy a perfectly good soap in a hurry.
Firstly the temperature at which you add your lye water to your oils is important. It can be done a number of ways and at a number of temperatures but ideally the lye and oils are all close to the same temperature at the same time. The combination of lye and water is very exothermic (meaning it generates a tonne of heat) and a lye solution can easily jump to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius) almost instantly. This means you have to cool the lye solution to match the temperature of your melted oils. Some people leave their oil and lye to sit and then soap at room temperature. Others add the hot lye straight to their unmelted oils, using the heat of the lye to melt the oils. Most soapers tend to soap between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 37 and 48 degrees Celsius) because this range is the best for fragrance oils to behave themselves and it reduces the chances of a false trace (a soap looking ready to pour before it actually is) or acceleration (a soap being ready way before you are).
All of this information is just to say that when the ambient temperature is absurdly high it changes the way you go about soaping. Sometimes the temps won't drop low enough and you have to use ice baths to artificially cool things down. Sometimes all of your solid oils, like coconut oil which is a white solid at room temperature, will melt down in their buckets like this pail did.
Secondly saponification (the natural process of forming soap) is also an exothermic reaction. That means that while the soap is sitting and setting up in the mold the reaction taking place gives off a great deal of heat as well. If the soap has sugars in it, such as milks, honey, or fresh fruit puree, it can give off a lot of heat. Some soapers allow their soap to gel (a process where the soap heats up and becomes semi-translucent) and others avoid gelling. It's really a matter of personal preference whether you gel or not as the soap is equally good regardless. I usually allow my soap to gel, unless it is high in sugars and then I freeze the soap to prevent it from heating up in the middle. However, when the ambient temperature is this high sometimes freezing doesn't even stop the soap from super heating. That's how I ended up with a batch of Pharaoh Soap (pictured below) that was frozen for 24 hours and still heated up to the point of scalding the milk in the solution, leaving a dark circle in the middle. The entire batch is unsellable as a result.
Humidity and Soap Making
Humidity is also a terrible issue when making soap. Ideally, during the curing period, the soap evaporates off excess water making for a harder and denser bar of soap. However when the ambient humidity is 99% (which it is here right now) nothing is evaporating at all. Even worse, high humidity can cause handmade soap to sweat because it is high in natural glycerin. This doesn't damage the soap but nobody wants to buy sweaty soap, so running dehumidifiers 24/7 is essentially a must.
Personal Issues With Heat
All of the above issues are bad enough for your average soap maker, but sadly it's even worse for someone like me as I have a disability that is exacerbated by extreme heat. I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan where the temperature was often above 55 degrees celsius (131 Fahrenheit). Now, for me, extreme heat triggers terrible memories and flashbacks. This leads to nightmares, insomnia, lack of focus, exhaustion, panic attacks, migraines, and the general feeling that I am slowly watching myself die. I promise you those things are worse to experience than they are to read about, and my ability to function in normal human ways has been seriously damaged of late.
All told it's a better idea for me to shut the soap room down for a few days until cooler temperatures can be achieved than it is for me to keep pushing through and potentially ruin a bunch of soap. Next week the soap room will be equipped with a minisplit that will air condition as well as dehumidify and I hope that all of these issues (with the exception of my PTSD sadly) will be resolved! Meanwhile, maybe I'll go to the beach...