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When Should I Replace My Helmet?

It’s a simple question isn’t it?  The most definite answer is if it’s been involved in an accident.  That much is certain.  A helmet, much like the crumple zones in a car, is DESIGNED to break on impact.  This helps dissipate the energy from the impact through the materials of the helmet and therefore reduce the amount of energy going to your brain. 

So, that’s a given.  That leaves us with 2 further reasons to replace your helmet, dropping it and its age.  Here it seems there are no definitive answers.  Due to the fact the helmet is designed to break on impact does it not make sense that if you drop it from even hip height that its internal and external structure could be damaged?  I am not going to answer that question on the grounds that I’m not a helmet expert and I don’t want you to sue me.

Some people think that even a minor fall means curtains for the lid.  Others believe that if it’s strong enough to protect your head in a crash then surely a drop off the workbench is not going to ruin it.  Personally, in my opinion, minor drops are OK, but if it gets a good old whack of any kind then I’d be thinking it’s time to replace it.  Here the best answer is not to drop or whack the thing, look after it carefully and don’t leave it in places it’s likely to fall or get whacked.

Then there’s age.  Most modern helmets have an “EPS” lining.  EPS, or “Expanded Polystyrene Styrofoam”, looks and feels just like the polystyrene packing that new computers and TV’s are protected with.  If you come across any such packaging then grab it and squeeze it enough to collapse the foam.  It’s a one-way thing, your fingers will make indents and when your remove your fingers the indents will still be there.  That same action of collapsing the foam is what happens in a crash, the foam “gives” to absorb the energy, but it does not return, it’s done it’s job once and can do it once only

The EPS Liner is not to be confused with the comfort foam, that’s padding much like you find on your settee.  So you have the padding, then the EPS then the shell, usually fibreglass or some modern plastic.  It seems the EPS is the thing that ages, that wears out, that loses its protective edge.

It does make sense.  You put your lid on, take it off, you stuff your gloves inside your helmet then take them out, you lend your lid to a friend who’s heads a different shape and so on and so on.  All the time that layer of foam is compacted a tiny bit more each time, until it gets thinner and offers less protection.  Also the comfort foam, like a settee’s foam, gives up with age.  Eventually you reach a stage where that once tight and snug lid rolls around on your noggin.  If it’s getting loose it must be time to replace.

Some manufacturers recommend replacement as often as 2 years, and as little as 5 years.  How you can put a time scale on such things is curious though.  What if you only use your helmet once a week and only during summer?  You may, in 5 years, only wear the helmet 50 times.  Yet if like me you ride most days, rain or shine, I may wear a helmet 300 days a year and be putting it on and taking it off all the time.  I can only assume these figures are “guides”.  One thing that most safety types and helmet manufacturers agree on though is that about every 5 years the technology has moved on enough to create better helmets which may just make it worthwhile investing in a new one.  How much of that is marketing hype I am unsure.

The most important thing is helmet care.  Apart from making sure it does not receive any impact, be sure not to use any solvents or strong chemicals.  Why?  Take a Styrofoam cup from a café and put it near petrol, thinners, nail polish remover, strong cleaners or anything else like that and watch it melt and go all gooey.  The EPS liner is hidden for the most part but parking your helmet on a petrol tank cap means the fumes are breaking down the polystyrene.  Wash your helmet with anything stronger than watered down washing up liquid and the fumes or odd splashes will eat the liner. 

Also get out of the habit of stuffing your gloves inside your lid.  Each time you’re collapsing the EPS a little bit more.  Don’t hang your lid on the mirrors as the sharp edges collapse the foam a little more.  I guess the only thing inside your helmet should be your head.  Your head is important, if in doubt, get a new helmet.

an agv helmet in white, red and silver
I purchased a new helmet.  My old one was...well...old...

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Reader's Comments

Carl said :-
Sun exposure also play a big part. UV radiations make plastic age quicker. So 5 years (or more) on a shelf is ok but a daily use is seriously to take into account. That's why I never buy expensive helmets, I only need them to be certified up to regulations.

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