This question doesn’t come up a lot, especially when the helmet you have “looks fine”. But is there standard and recommended expiry date for motorcycle helmets? Yes, there is.
Manufacturers recommend replacement, no matter how it looks every 7 years from production date, and after 5 years of use. To check when your helmet was manufactured, look inside to find a date stamp. A label will have the date printed in the format – YY/MM/DD format. For example, 19/05/22 is May 22, 2019, this would be the exact date the helmet was made. Adding 7 years to this date, regardless of use, will give you its absolute expiry date.
If the helmet has no date stamp it you will have to make a decision based on style and brand. When was it this model available? Do you know generally when it was purchased? On the extreme end, it may be an antique since date labels were mandatory since 1974. In most cases, if you can’t remember when you bought it, or if there’s no way to tell from a date inside it’s likely over 5 to 7 years old and is technically expired.
If it has been painted, has visible impact marks and abrasions from being in an accident, damage to the strap, or interior padding it is not safe to use. Time to go helmet shopping.
The round shape, like your head, is the best for spreading the energy of an impact and can deflect impacts, bouncing off the surface and letting the energy continue on its way so to speak. The hard outer shell and layers of interior padding are designed to redistribute and absorb impacts, this shell also protects your head and face from abrasions.
Regardless of how shiny, beautiful and new your helmet looks its primary function is to absorb impacts and abrasions and to be sacrificed in order to protect your head. It is ultimately an expendable piece of safety equipment.
A secondary helmet function is hearing protection, by reducing the wind and road noise reaching your eardrums. For further protection, riders will often add another layer of protection with soft ear plugs. Over time you may “get used to it”, but you are actually suffering damage as the eardrums become numb and overloaded.
And of course, eye protection is another handy feature provided by a helmet. The flip down visor provides immediate eye and face protection from bugs and road debris. The visor protects your delicate eyes from the rain that can be distracting and even dangerous when it hinders your vision. Tinted and phot reactive visors offer protection from exposure to sun, over the hours this also protects your eyes from damage.
Riding at highway speed without eye protection is in the same category as going without a helmet, just don’t do it. The downside is astronomically larger than any perceived “benefits” of going without a helmet or eye protection I feel it’s not even worth talking about.
Modern helmets use technology and designs making them lighter and stronger than ones from just a decade ago. The majority of helmets are constructed with an outer shell made of polycarbonate plastic, while more expensive high-end helmets use a combination of fiberglass and Kevlar to achieve superior strength and lighter weight. Older and very low-priced helmets may use all fiberglass construction which will be noticeably heavier.
The outer shell is designed as the first line of defense against impact, penetration, and abrasions. The inside layers of padding are to further distribute and cushion any impact forces. The core of the interior layer is made from EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam. EPS is basically the same material used to make white “foam” coffee cups and packing peanuts, only denser. It is, like the out shell made to be sacrificial – once it has absorbed an impact it needs to be replaced.
Additional layers of removable, adjustable padding and liners are used to make sure the helmet fits close and snug to the rider’s head shape. Movement of the rider’s head inside the helmet must be minimized for impact distribution to be effective. To hold the helmet securely to the rider’s head, a chin strap with a D-ring or clamp arrangement is used. The chin strap is physically connected to the helmet with webbing that is riveted to the shell of the helmet.
Wear & Tear
The outer shell is hard and somewhat brittle, it is not meant to take multiple impacts. Any serious drops or accident impacts or abrasions often mean the helmet’s in safety factors are greatly reduced. It can be affected by prolonged exposure to sunlight and any harsh chemicals.
The EPS liner is designed to be compressible, as the name implies it is constructed largely of air pockets, up to 90% can be air pockets. It loses its value through compression through use and being attacked by agents found in hair oils, shampoos & conditioners, and the glues used to manufacture the helmet itself.
The EPS lining receives constant pressure from your head pressed against it with the chin strap secured tightly. The wind and vibration added to the pressure compressing the APS over time. It becomes less compressed and less capable of absorbing shocks it was designed to.
The padding needs to be in good condition and not flattened down or missing. These materials are often designed to be removed for cleaning purposes, which can also lead to wear. Over time your helmet will pick up scratches and suffer from microwear that all adds up, there is almost no avoiding it.
Handling & Daily Care
Overall your helmet should be treated as gently as possible and stored just as carefully. These are some basic rules for treating a helmet right;
- Store the helmet in its supplied cradle, bag or flat on a shelf
- Never toss it around, even on a bed or soft chair
- Never hang a helmet by the chin strap where it could get knocked to the ground
- Do not hang it off your handlebar or mirror when parked (can damage EPS & liner)
- Do not put it down inverted on hard objects, carefully rest it flat
- When transporting it, put it in a soft travel bag, and make sure it doesn’t bounce around
- Don’t store it in direct sunlight
- Do not store in the garage near chemicals and solvents
- Never directly wash the interior
- Take out liners & padding and wash as per manufacturer’s instructions
- Use a soft cloth and mild detergent on the outer shell’s surface
- Never scrap bugs off with a sharp object
- Never cut the chin strap shorter – loop it under several times to stop it flapping
- Never poke or play with the liner pressing your fingers into it
- Do not add random stickers to the outside
- Use only vinyl graphics designed with compatible adhesive
- Never repaint a helmet
Modifications and Helmet Accessories
In general, do not modify your helmet. Only consider accessories that were designed or certified by the manufacturer. Helmet mounted cameras, like GoPros, are definitely not recommended and may even be illegal in your area. If you are wondering why the externally mounted object can become a point were impact forces are concentrated and could puncture the helmet shell in an accident.
When & Why to Replace your Helmet
As mentioned above the useful lifespan is 5 years of active service, or a total of 7 years since the manufacturing date (found inside).
Otherwise, It’s time to replace if any of these conditions occur,
- It has been in an accident – and has any road abrasion marks
- Had a serious drop resulting in visible shell damage, not from a single drop with cosmetic marks
- Liners are worn or loose, making it not fit snuggly
- Notice any movement of your head, even when fully snugged up
- There is no date of manufacturer and you can’t recall when it was purchased
- There are none, or no recognizable safety certification labels
- Damage to webbing or chin strap
- Strap & web rivets are loose or missing rivets
New Helmet Shopping
I highly recommend shopping in person for a helmet. Variations in skull size and shape make it impractical to exclusively buy online. However, if you find the model and size that fits perfect, by all means, shop around online for the best deal.
There is a long list of valid certifying agencies and schemes – it depends on where you live which ones apply. DOT FMVSS 218, Snell, and the European ECE certifications are recognized, check your local regulations for exact requirements. When purchasing new at a dealer certification will no doubt be valid (there are harsh penalties otherwise). Buying online be very careful, do your research and confirm the helmet is certified for your region.
Fitting – verify how well the helmets first your head in general. To determine the size range you fit into, measure the band around your head where the bottom of a baseball cap would normally rest. Have someone else measure with a tailor’s / seamstress’ tape. This will be on an angle with respect to the ground.
If you wear glasses make sure they fit inside the helmet and be conveniently put on and taken off. Also, make sure your glasses or sunshade frames are not pressured in any direction, this will become very uncomfortable after a few hours of riding.
Helmets need to fit very snuggly, and even more, than you would think. Tight but not painful is the direction – for the “baseball cap circle” (mentioned above), and in the cheek area. Watch some videos on fitting made by manufacturers, and then try some on in a store. You will need to wear the helmet for some time to get a good feel for the fit (tight, not painful). Getting a very snug fit is essential to maximizing the helmet’s protective capabilities.
Inspect all available adjustable and removal liners, to see what range of fit and movement they have. After compressing you will want more padding in certain areas. Make sure all removal liners are washable.
The design should feel light and give you an unobstructed view and have a wide field of prereferral vision. You should be able to operate the visor with one gloved hand and have a lock-in place mechanism. It should also have positive positioning for riding in semi-open angels. Ventilation ducts are a feature nice to have also.
Face shields – look for replaceable units and availability of replacement hinges and mechanisms. Some shields can be interchanged with clear, tinted, reflective and even photosensitive designs. Consider when the shield gets a lot of micro scratches it will be challenging to use at night with outside lighting hitting it. I would buy a set of protective overlays or second new visor when purchasing the helmet. – they will get scratched over time
When possible, look for reflective elements built into the graphics. You will be that much safer at night or in low light conditions. It may be possible to order a reflective graphics kit with your helmet.
A helmet requires a very personal fit, so always try them on in person. If possible take them for a test ride too. You really need full wind pressure to test the dynamics of the design for sure.
What to do with an Old Helmet
Since an old, expired helmet is unsafe for you and anyone – selling it is not an ethical option. To be sure it is not used by anyone cut off the chin straps before disposing of it. There really isn’t a lot of material to recycle, but some places will take it. The most practical and good use I have found is to donate it to a local emergency services (fire or paramedics) unit. They can use it in simulated accident situations, for training purposes. So your old helmet could, in the end, actually save a life as it was intended!
Summing it Up
A good helmet almost becomes second nature to flip on and off, but it also tends to be taken for granted. The years will pass by and it’s not given too much thought. But the small scratches, impacts, dings, material degradation, and liner compression all contribute to a significant loss of protective cushioning and impact resistance.
A recent survey found that up to 40% of riders are wearing expired helmets, that are over 5 years old. Additionally, the study didn’t ask about helmet condition, drops or such damage – so you can assume more than 40% are actually using unsafe, damaged helmets.
To maximize your safety and protection, treat your helmet well and replace it after 5 years of use (or 7 years combined use/non-use). The cost per season is minimal compared with the protection a helmet provides you. Besides being well-designed and rated, a helmet needs to fit you properly and be comfortable. A good helmet will also boost your confidence and add the riding experience.