Is your candle looking a little bland, or is the scent off? It may have expired—but that doesn’t mean you have to toss it.

Many of us have grand ambitions when we stock up on candles. We'll light this one in the bathroom, that one in the living room—and maybe we'll light two in our bedroom to make it smell really great. But before we get the chance to light all our fragrant finds, the season we bought the scents for is almost over and we're left with a simple question: Do candles expire? Or can we save all the candles we just bought for next year?

The short answer is that candles can expire. But the long answer is a little more complicated than that.

Do candles expire?

Candles can expire. But they won't spoil the way food does, according to Scott Dean Brown, owner of SDB Candle Co. If you wait too long to drink a gallon of milk, it will probably smell and taste terrible—and it might even make you sick. A candle is unlikely to do that, even if you've had it for a really long time.

Odds are, Brown says, it will just start to lose its color or fragrance—which is a real bummer if you bought it because you thought it was pretty or because it smelled great.

Why do candles expire?

Candles are typically made of a few ingredients: wax, fragrance oils, and dye. And each of these ingredients can degrade over time.

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1 Wax

Most candles contain some kind of wax, and some waxes have longer lifespans than others. Paraffin wax (also known as petroleum wax) tends to last a while. “Paraffin is inert, non-reactive, and very stable,” says Kathy LaVanier, CEO of Renegade Candles. “There really isn’t a life expectancy to paraffin wax.”

But natural waxes—like soy wax—tend to expire sooner. This makes intuitive sense. Soy wax is derived from soybean oil, a plant-based product. We wouldn’t expect the soybean oil in our pantries to last forever—and we shouldn’t expect the soy wax in our candles to last forever, either.

2 Fragrance oils

Most candles are scented using synthetic fragrances, natural fragrances (like essential oils), or some combination of the two. Over time, these fragrances will dissipate—and they’ll begin to smell fainter and fainter. If the candle had a very strong scent to begin with, the aroma might stick around a little longer. And since different waxes bond with fragrances differently, the kind of wax in your candle might also slow this process down or speed it up.

Also worth noting: Since natural fragrances are, well, natural, they’ll degrade like any other natural substance. Most of the time, this will cause your candle to have a more subtle scent. But some of the time, it will cause it to smell different.

“Every essential oil has its own unique profile of aging, so there is no set rule about how it will mature over time,” LaVanier says. “You may like it more or not as much—only time will tell.”

3 Dye

Some candles are colored using dye. And as those candles are exposed to light—particularly, sunlight—those dyes will begin to fade or change colors. “It is very common to see color shifts that can be into a pleasing deep brown or into a much less [pleasing] vivid green or yellow,” LaVanier says.

How long does a candle last?

A candle's lifespan can vary a lot, based on its ingredients. But a good rule of thumb is to light your candle within 12 to 16 months of buying it.

"By now, you've probably gotten the message that every candle is different," LaVanier says, adding that a paraffin candle scented with synthetic oils can last for years, while a candle made with vegetable wax and essential oils is best used within a few months. "Think of it like buying canned and frozen foods with preservatives, versus buying organic produce … [And] use them accordingly."

How to tell if your candle has expired

If your candle looks or smells different, it's probably begun to degrade. Pay attention to the candle's color: Does it look faded? Has it turned yellow, green, or brown? These may be signs that your candle isn't in tip-top shape. Pay attention to its scent, too. If the scent has faded, changed, or disappeared entirely, your candle may be past its prime.

But can you still light it? Maybe. "There are two factors relating to the decision that your candle has 'expired'—burn performance and aesthetics," LaVanier says. Sometimes, an expired candle has changed so much that you can't really light it any more. Its burn performance has been affected.

"The changes in the fragrance oil in particular, but also to some extent in the wax … may create situations that clog the wick," LaVanier says. To figure out if this has happened, try lighting your candle, and observe the flame. Is it incredibly small, is it sputtering, or does it keep going out? This means your candle has burn performance issues—and it's probably gone for good.

But if you can successfully light your candle, you can probably keep on using it. "The candle may change to an unattractive color, or the scent may change to something different than when you purchased it," LaVanier says. "If it still burns well, you can still use the candle knowing you may have passed the time period of the best visual or aromatic experience." As long as you don't mind the way your candle now looks and smells, you should be good to go.

How to store your candles so they don't expire

Finding out that candles can expire is a pretty big bummer. But the good news is that there are steps you can take to extend a candle's lifespan.

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1 Store your candle in a dark place

Light can cause discoloration and it can disrupt a candle’s fragrance, so you’ll want to keep your candles away from it. “UV light breaks down both color and fragrance,” LaVanier says. “Keeping candles tucked away where light won’t reach them ... will slow down degradation and prolong the beauty of both their appearance and scent.”

2 Keep your candle somewhere that’s consistently cool and dry

Temperature fluctuations can alter a candle’s chemistry, speeding up the expiration process. (This tends to be particularly true if your candle is exposed to extreme heat.) So try to store your candles in a spot where the temperature doesn’t change that much—like in a closet. Brown recommends aiming for “room temperature and lower.” And he suggests storing them in a place that’s both cool and dry.

3 Wrap your candles up before putting them away

A great way to protect your candles from the elements? Wrap them up before storing them. “Give your stored candles the mummy treatment,” LaVanier says. “Wrap them up—with lids on if they have them—so that they are as protected from the air as possible.” She recommends using zip-up bags and plastic tubs to store them, if you have a couple on hand.