Part 1 - When to Replace Your Ski Helmet
Part 2 - When to Replace Your Ski Helmet
When to Replace Your Ski Helmet or Snowboard Helmet
Up until the late 1990s or early 2000s, the only piece of ski safety equipment most skiers wore was a good pair of ski goggles to protect their eyes from sun glare, wind, snow, ice, and other debris. However, ski helmets have become equally ubiquitous on the ski slopes, and with good reason. A well-constructed, properly fitted ski helmet can help prevent serious brain injury in the event of a fall or a collision. The National Ski Patrol and Professional Ski Instructors of America also recommend wearing ski helmets. Ski helmet acceptance has grown quickly. According to the National Ski Area Association, in 2009/2010, 57% of skiers reported voluntarily wearing a helmet. Today that number has increased. Just like any other helmet, ski helmets and snowboard helmets can lose their protective qualities as they age and are exposed to the elements. At what point should you replace your ski or snowboard helmet? Every manufacturer agrees that a helmet must be replaced after a significant impact or collision. But what if you haven’t had a major crash? What if you’ve had a few “little” falls? What then?
What’s Inside My Ski Helmet?
The discussion of when to replace a helmet needs to start with a quick overview of the materials used to construct a ski or snowboard helmet. Most ski helmets consist of three layers:
- An exterior shell
- An interior liner that contains the majority of the cushioning material
- Some sort of very thin foam padding for comfort and fit
Ski helmets typically have a very thin, rigid acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or other high-impact plastic exterior shell and a protective inner liner typically made of expanded polystyrene (EPS). The thin foam padding that rests between the EPS liner and your head is designed to make the helmet fit comfortably but does not have protective qualities. One misconception is that EPS is synonymous with Styrofoam. They are two separate materials. Styrofoam is a trademark from Dow Chemical Company for a specific type of extruded polystyrene used frequently in building materials (those blue insulating boards), craft products, and other products. EPS is a generic term used to describe the foam products you see in various forms every day—foam drink coolers, foam cups, insulating materials, and, yes, helmets. Although EPS has become the industry standard in helmet liners, other types of foam/plastic are used as well
How Are Ski Helmets Made?
There are two primary manufacturing processes for ski helmets: in-mold and injection molding. In-mold helmets are made by fusing the shell and shock-absorbing foam liner in a single molding process. The liner and shell are not glued together but are permanently joined. In-mold helmets are sleeker and lighter than injection-molded helmets. Injection-molded helmets have an EPS foam liner bonded to the exterior shell with some sort of high-performance adhesive. Injection-molded helmets are sometimes called “ABS helmets.” “ABS” refers to the plastic used in the exterior shell (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). These helmets offer more durability against everyday knocks and falls, while providing similar impact protection. Unless otherwise noted in the product description, ski helmets and snowboard helmets sold by XSportsProtective meet ASTM snow helmet safety standards (the US-based standard that covers non-motorized recreational snow sports) and some meet the CE EN 1077 snow helmet safety standards (the European standard for alpine skiing and snowboarding helmets). Some helmets are certified to both ASTM and CE EN standards, a helmet could conceivably meet the CE EN standard but not the ASTM standard.
How Long Does the Average Ski Helmet Last?
Let’s cut to the chase: The ski helmet manufacturers we spoke with recommend replacing your ski helmet every three to five years. The useful life of a ski helmet with an EPS liner varies based on use. Not just how often you use it, but how you use it (and how and where you keep it when you’re not using it). Some big factors that can affect a ski helmet’s protective capacity:
- Age. Ski helmets are used in an outdoor, generally very dry environment, which ages the EPS foam and decreases protective qualities over time.
- Exposure to chemicals found in skin lotions or sunscreen
- Temperature cycles based on where you store it (e.g., a hot, humid garage or hot, dry attic in the summer)
- How many dings and dents it has received (with the reminder that impacts to the helmet are frequently not visible to the naked eye)
- Cleaning chemicals. Most manufacturers recommend using only warm water and gentle soap to clean a ski helmet, as other chemicals may degrade the EPS foam.
Our product representative at Giro Snow takes a conservative stance toward ski helmet replacement, stating: "We recommend 3-5 years depending on frequency of use. This is based on the shelf-life of the plastics we use in the product, particularly the EPS foam." Giro Snow also noted the difficulty of establishing a standard because “"use" and "abuse" are totally relative and then liability factors in for implied protection.” The Helmet Product Manager for Smith Optics recommends that users replace their ski helmets every three years. She notes: “This is certainly not a hard rule, as many users will compromise their helmets earlier, and some will have helmets perfectly able to last longer, but we feel this best represents the broadest range of our users. Please keep in mind that all Smith helmets are single impact and should be replaced after a single, significant impact.” She adds that: “The vast majority of the safety properties from a helmet come from the EPS foam, which is inside the helmet. This foam does not receive significant UV exposure, since the outer ABS and PC shells protect it from the sun. The EPS foam, similar to a stick broken from a tree, or a piece of bread left on the counter, will lose inherent moisture over time and become increasingly brittle. This is true for all EPS foam.”
So Should I Replace My Ski Helmet or Not?
Ultimately, the decision to replace a ski helmet or not rests with the wearer. We’re happy you've taken the precaution of wearing a ski helmet or snowboard helmet in the first place. When and how often to replace that helmet is your choice. Please remember that if your helmet has taken a significant hit—an accident or fall hard enough to make you say, “Wow”—replace the helmet. EPS foam is made to compress upon heavy impact. This disperses the force of the impact so that the helmet, not your skull, is taking the brunt of the blow. However, EPS foam does not completely regain its shape after a major impact. If you've sustained a heavy blow while wearing that helmet, it’s time to get a new one, even if the helmet does not look visibly damaged. If you’re able to read this, the ski helmet did its job, but now it’s time to retire the old soldier.
Replacing Children’s Ski Helmets
It’s a common (and environmentally responsible) practice for parents to trade off clothes, helmets, and sports equipment to other parents as their kids grow or to buy used sports equipment. And why not? A pair of soccer cleats that were only used for one or two seasons still have a lot of use left in them. The only case where this scenario might not be safe is in the case of helmets. Before your child wears a second-hand ski helmet or snowboard helmet, know where it came from and if the helmet ever sustained any significant hits. Kids just learning how to ski or snowboard are more likely to fall frequently. Just because a helmet looks okay on the outside does not mean the interior liner is still intact. Inspect any used helmet carefully. In general, XSportsProtective does not recommend used helmets. Like car safety seats, you simply don’t know the helmet’s history. And for $50-$60, why take the risk?