By Coach Fred Matheny
It’s often recommended that a helmet worn frequently should be replaced every 3 years or so. The reason is that the foam degrades due to sun, heat, salty sweat and other environmental factors, added to the usual knocks of regular cycling activity.
These things make the foam unable to provide the full protection it’s designed for in the event of a head impact. A helmet should certainly be replaced after it’s damaged in a crash or even dropped hard.
However, some experts (presumably those not working for helmet companies) maintain that a helmet will be protective no matter what its age as long as it’s undamaged. In their view, there is no age limit.
There’s no arguing, though, that buying a new helmet every 3 years will keep you current with comfort and safety features as well as style. It’s remarkable the improvements we’ve seen in helmet lightness, ventilation and fit. And now, of course, MIPS and other “concussion-mitigation” helmet technology is available as well.
Many newer models have a “cradle” for the lower rear of the head. This makes them more stable on bumps and rough roads. And some feature a full “halo” fitting system that encircles the head, vs. just pulling the helmet from back to front to snug it against your forehead.
Typically, you pay more for a wider array of features, as with most all cycling gear. But there are many, many fine choices at the lower and mid-range of the spectrum, too.
You can find big savings on this year’s helmets when next year’s are introduced. Check bike shops and online, find the price and style you like, then wear your helmet on every ride you take. No exceptions.
Few months ago German TOUR magazine tested “aged” helmets – 7-years old. Their protection degraded, but not significantly, all of them still satisfied safety norms.
Les Turk says
I wish I could go 3 years between crashes and the need for a new helmet. I just replaced my 6 month old helmet after a crash. The head is fine. Crack in the helmet.
Amy Marie says
You can buy a new helmet but not a new head so I’m glad you’re ok!!
Kerry Irons says
Many of the plastics used in helmets are essentially impervious to sweat. Body oil and sunscreen are a different subject, but in my helmets at least, my skin touches the pads, not the helmet foam or shell. IME it is the straps and brackets that typically suggest it’s time to replace the helmet. And that is after tens of thousands of miles.
ROBYN A. WEINBAUM says
i live in florida so i ride year round, in the heat/sun/rain [about 5000 miles/year]. after 2 years or so, IF my helmets haven’t been in a crash or dropped, i notice the Styrofoam seems brittle. i usually have 2 or 3 helmets so i’m not even wearing the same one every day. plus, while you can wash the little liner pads, it is really hard to wash and dry the straps and they can get gross.
considering you can get a decent helmet for $20 to 100, it seems stupid to not replace the only piece of protective gear you have.
my husband is even more of a helmet fan. he has helmets to match specific kits, with built in lights, with blue tooth for his mapmyride. after 2 years or so, they join the wall display of ‘Dead Helmets: better them than us!’
Schubert John says
Fred, the brightest kid in the class — Randy Swart of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute — has done more research than any of us on this topic, and found that the three year ‘rule’ is bogus. Here are his findings:
Schubert John says
Fred, the brightest kid in the class — Randy Swart of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute — has done more research than any of us on this topic, and found that the three year ‘rule’ is bogus.
Here are his findings:
Newer helmets from the late 1980’s and the 90’s may or may not need replacement. First look to see what standards sticker is inside. If it’s ASTM or Snell, the helmet was designed to meet today’s standards for impact protection, and you may even find that Consumer Reports tested it in one of their articles. Most manufacturers now recommend that helmets be replaced after five years, but some of that may be just marketing. (Bell now recommends every three years, which seems to us too short. They base it partially on updating your helmet technology, but they have not been improving their helmets that much over three year periods, and we consider some of their helmets since the late 1990’s to be a step backwards, so we would take that with a grain of salt.) Deterioration depends on usage, care, and abuse. But if you ride thousands of miles every year, five years may be a realistic estimate of helmet life. And helmets have actually been improving enough over time to make it a reasonable bet that you can find a better one than you did five years ago. It may fit better, look better, and in some cases may even be more protective. For an alternate view that agrees with the manufacturers, check out the helmet FAQ of the Snell Foundation. Snell knows a lot about helmets and their views on this subject should not be dismissed lightly, even though we disagree with them.
Occasionally somebody spreads rumors that sweat and ultraviolet (UV) exposure will cause your helmet to degrade. Sweat will not do that. The standards do not permit manufacturers to make a helmet that degrades from sweat, and the EPS, EPP or EPU foam is remarkably unaffected by salt water. Your helmet will get a terminal case of grunge before it dies of sweat. Sunlight can affect the strength of the shell material, though. Since helmets spend a lot of time in the sun, manufacturers usually put UV inhibitors in the plastic for their shells that control UV degradation. If your helmet is fading or showing small cracks around the vents, the UV inhibitors may be failing, so you probably should replace it. Chances are it has seen an awful lot of sun to have that happen. Otherwise, try another brand next time and let us know what brand faded on you.
At least one shop told a customer that the EPS in his three year old helmet was now “dried out.” Other sales people refer to “outgassing” and say that the foam loses gas and impact performance is affected. Still others claim that helmets lose a percentage of their effectiveness each year, with the percentage growing with age. All of that is nothing but marketing hype to sell a replacement helmet before you need it.
I have a Bell helmet from 1980. It is pretty much the same now as it was then, solid plastic very hard outer, thick polystyrene foam inside, woven straps. Much heavier than today’s helmets. If it was safe in 1980 I can’t see why it isn’t safe now. Any comment?
Guy Rintoul says
I certainly wouldn’t be using a forty year old helmet! It may still be safe based on 1980s standards, but our understanding of manufacturing technology, materials science, brain injury etc. has come on an incredible amount since then. When you’re talking about such an old helmet it’s not about whether it still works based on “whether it was safe then” but whether there are options available nowadays where the technology will protect you from severe injury or death far, far better – and there are.
Dean E. Buxton says
Replace only when it smells, even after washing.
Bruno John says
Normally, the bike helmet lifespan is about 3-5 years. But I think you should change your helmet after a collision to ensure your safety when traveling on the road. Because the foam inside the helmet is designed to be used only once, an impact, no matter how strong or light, can weaken the helmet’s foam lining. Or after a hard drop on the surface, there may be some cracks and damage that you cannot see, but this reduces the effectiveness of your helmet in the future.
Bruno John says
Bike helmets are specifically designed to absorb a single impact. In case of a crash and deterioration, it is important to replace your headgear immediately. Aside from that, you should consider other factors like years of usage and environmental exposures. Thus, it is ideal to replace them every three to five years.