How often should you replace your helmet? I’ve broken two helmets in all the years I’ve been cycling and I was really glad that they saved my head. I understand their value and that they are indeed a single use, or should I say single crash, product. I broke them both in Moab, Utah in consecutive years and the second one was the free replacement for the first. The first one got broken on Porcupine Rim. I entered a section of sand way too fast and got thrown over my handle bars. I saw stars and after getting the sand out of my ears, I couldn’t figure out why my helmet was so loose until my buddy Matt said, “dude, your helmet is like cracked in half”. This is Matt attempting to point out the big crack while I’m thinking I’ve got a lot more riding to do with this cracked helmet:
About 15 minutes later Matt did a face plant on a rock. Not much help from the helmet and lots of blood, I’ve got to find that photo, but I digress. I mailed the helmet back to Bell and they sent me a new one with a certificate that said, “Saved by the Bell”. The replacement helmet got broken on a trail called Amasa Back also in Moab. If you impact your helmet in a crash they are designed to protect you by compressing so after the crash the helmet has compromised and you need to replace it. If you’ve done anything else with it that could give it a significant impact like dropping a suitcase on it or your tool box, you should replace it.
But back to the question at hand, how often should you replace your helmet?
Some helmet manufacturers recommend replacing your helmet every three years. Now the helmet manufacturers aren’t particularly without bias in this situation. Heck, if they can get you to fork out another $75 or more for a Styrofoam bucket covered in a thin shell, that’s some serious profit. I’m not saying that they don’t have your best interest from a safety stand point in mind but there is definitely a profit motive at work here. So how do we find an unbiased third party that at least has the goal of keeping my melon in one piece as their primary mission? We look-up the highly factual, yet visually boring, Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI) website. http://www.helmets.org and see what they have to say about it.
First let’s dispel the three year myth: “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.” (BHSI)
So how old can your helmet be and still be safe? “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.” (BHSI)
How about sweat, all that salt must damage your helmet? “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.” “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.” (BHSI)
An Italian helmet manufacturer called MET notes that their testing shows that their helmets should last 8 years. Use good judgment, if the helmet is old technology, has any damage or no longer can be secured to your head correctly replace it. Hopefully you never have to use your helmet but if you do, you’ll be glad you had it.