Bicycle helmets are a difficult buying choice for cyclists because, well, why wouldn’t you want to give your head maximum protection when riding?
People often spend a lot of money on a helmet because they intuitively equate price with the protection level. And they’ll regularly replace the helmet on the vague off-chance that it has degraded.
Do bicycle helmets expire? Does more money buy you more protection?
In this article, you’ll find out how long you can expect a bicycle helmet to last, when you should replace one and what to look for when you do.
Do Bicycle Helmets Expire?
A bicycle helmet does not suddenly expire, so any arbitrary lifespan quoted by manufacturers or organizations should be met with some critical thinking.
There are signs to look for that will help you decide when it’s time to buy a new bicycle helmet. More on that a little later.
One of the few scientific studies conducted in this area found that age does not affect the protective properties of EPS foam used in bicycle helmets. That test was based on samples ranging from 2 to 20+ years old.
Of course, the above does not mean that other components of the helmet cannot fail or that the design hasn’t been obsolesced.
When Should You Replace A Bike Helmet?
Below are some common reasons and guidelines for helmet replacement.
The Five-Year Rule
Some manufacturers and even a respected body like the Snell Foundation advocate replacing helmets every five years. But this advice is not based on an immutable truth. You must interpret it.
The Snell 1995 Standard for Protective Headgear (1998 revision) For Use in Bicycling states: “Some helmets are made of materials which deteriorate with age and therefore have a limited life span.”
The above statement prefaces a recommendation for 5 years of use maximum in bicycle helmets, deferring to manufacturer’s recommendations where they exist, but more recent scientific findings and tests rather belie this advice.
Your helmet is not likely to be unusable in five years unless you put in vast amounts of miles. Neither does it degrade through sweat, as is sometimes asserted.
The Ten-Year Rule
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the U.S. has a broader interpretation of when you should replace a bicycle helmet: every 5 to 10 years.
Given that most people are likely to buy a new helmet within a decade based on fashion alone, this seems a realistic guideline.
With recent safety developments, a helmet you bought ten years ago is certainly riper for change than one you might have bought five years ago.
What Manufacturers Say
Here are some manufacturers’ recommendations for helmet-swapping frequency:
- Bell: 3 years
- Giro: 3 to 5 years
- Kask: 3 years
- Louis Garneau: 3 years recommended (7 at the latest)
- MET: 3 to 5 years (was 8 in 2010 according to the BHSI)
- POC: 3 years (concede that some may not visibly age in 10 years)
Reasons given for these lifespans often include degradation by use of personal care products, but a substance test by the BHSI (Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute) showed such damage to be superficial. Still, you might want to go easy on the product.
Should You Replace A Bike Helmet After An Accident?
If you fall off your bike and hit your head, the helmet must be replaced. Although the helmet is often visibly fractured, the hard outer shell can reform and conceal damage.
A helmet is a single-event product, no matter how much it cost you.
Does Dropping A Helmet Ruin It?
The best answer to this is probably not, according to the Snell Foundation, though you should inspect it closely for damage. Replace the helmet if you see any cracks in the foam liner.
A legitimate reason for changing a bicycle helmet is UV degradation. Although helmets are made with UV inhibitors built in, someone who rides many thousands of miles may degrade a helmet this way.
Look for fading in the shell and cracks around the helmet vents.
If, through wear and tear, you can no longer get a helmet to fit securely to your head, you should replace it. That’s true even if it’s the straps that have become ineffective.
Video: How to Fit a Cycle Helmet
An old bicycle helmet of unknown origin without a safety standard sticker inside should not be worn.
Impact-protection technology that has emerged in the last five or so years improves safety in helmets and reduces risk of concussion.
What Features To Look For When Buying A Replacement Bike Helmet
Features to look for in in a bicycle helmet follow below. Pay particular attention to the first two.
Size & Shape
Closely related to safety are the size and shape of a bicycle helmet. You must always measure your head before buying. To do this, wrap a flexible tape measure around your head about one inch above the eyebrows and ears.
Buy an appropriate size of helmet and fine-tune the fit with the retention system.
It’s a good idea to try helmets on before buying, as bike helmets and heads come in round and oval shapes.
Multidirectional Impact Protection (MIPS)
In addition to the EPS foam liner that crumples to absorb the impact of a crash, many modern helmets include extra impact protection technology. The best-known of these is MIPs, which counteracts harmful angled impacts and rotational force.
Rivalling MIPs, which is licensed across various brands, are modern proprietary technologies. These include Bontrager WaveCel technology and POC SPIN.
Although there is debate on how effective these technologies are, and some non-MIPs helmets that deliver better protection than some with it, on balance this extra protection is worth having.
A good case in favor of these technologies comes from the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, which found that most of the best-performing helmets incorporated MIPs, SPIN or WaveCel protection.
If you do a lot of riding in urban areas (or even if you don’t), you might think about the visibility of your bike helmet. Reflective materials on bike helmets are relatively rare, but you can buy them in fluorescent yellow for daytime visibility.
Some bike helmets have built-in LED lights for extra night-time visibility.
Since it would be unsafe to wear a helmet loosely on your head, it follows that the chin strap is an important element of safety. You should be able to adjust it easily so that the helmet is snug but not uncomfortably tight on your head.
Generally, the more vents the better for ventilation, but efficiency is also about the design and shape of the vents. So, peer reviews are useful here. You can’t get a clear idea about helmet ventilation in a shop.
A feature many look for in helmet vents is the ability to hold a pair of sunglasses in place when not being worn.
If you’re a road cyclist that races or just likes to ride quickly, an aero helmet may appeal. These can give you as big a boost in speed as fast-rolling tires.
Aero helmets tend to have fewer vents, but many look inconspicuous regardless.
Uncommon, but big helmet manufacturers have thought of biodegradable helmets and considered the problem of non-biodegradable EPS in landfill.
Heading Off: Conclusion
The best approach when deciding if you need a new helmet is to look for physical signs that you do. Does it still fit securely? Is there any obvious sign of wear?
Technology has improved in the last five years, too. Multidirectional impact protection is a good idea if you can afford it. Don’t put off buying a helmet if you can’t.
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