When to Replace Your Bicycle Helmet
When to Replace Your Bicycle HelmetIf you hang out on enough bicycle forums or blogs, you’ll read widely divergent viewpoints on when to replace your cycling helmet. Most bicycle helmet manufacturers recommend replacing every three to five years, and many cyclists advocate this “better-safe-than-sorry” (or “better-safe-than-suffering-from-a-severe-head-injury”) viewpoint. Other cyclists believe such frequent replacement is just a way for helmet manufacturers to sell more helmets or protect themselves from possible litigation. Both sides have a legitimate point.
What’s Inside My Bike Helmet?The discussion of when to replace a helmet needs to start with a quick overview of the materials used to construct a bike helmet. Most helmets consist of three layers:
Is EPS in a Bike Helmet the Same Thing as Styrofoam?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, bicycle helmets. While EPS has become the industry standard in bike helmet liners, other types of foam/plastic are used as well. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI) has a great article on the different types of foam used in bike helmet liners.
A helmet that works well for one sport may not be suitable for another sport. Bicycle helmets are required by federal law, to meet Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) safety standards. If you’re biking, be sure you are using a cycling helmet that meets CPSC standards. For instance, most helmets designed only for skate use do not meet CPSC standards. Sometimes a helmet isn’t just a helmet.
How Long Does the Average Bicycle Helmet Last?The useful life of a bike 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 helmet’s protective capacity:
What Chemicals Can Degrade a Bike Helmet?A few more points from Easton Bell (quoted directly unless otherwise noted):
Easton Bell was kind enough to send us some photos of their rooftop helmet garden (complete with Redwood duff.) Easton Bell noted that “One of the helmets in the front has had other environmental tests done to it, as we have a UV tank, oven, and freezer we use. It has been pretty messed up by exposure, but is not yet ready to impact. Three other helmets are off the roof right now in the hands of one of our engineers.”
Aren't the Helmet Makers Just Trying to Make Me Spend More Money?It's not only helmet manufacturers who urge consumers to err on the side of caution regarding helmet replacement. The Snell Foundation is not-for-profit organization dedicated to research, education, testing and development of helmet safety standards. Snell also takes a more conservative approach to bike helmet replacement, recommending that users replace their helmet every five years. Snell cites many of the same reasons as Easton Bell for frequent replacement:
So Should I Replace My Helmet or Not?The one place where all these sources agree is that a helmet must be replaced if it’s taken a significant hit—an accident or fall hard enough to make you say, “Wow.” 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. The bottom line from all these sources is that, if the helmet has been in an accident, replace it, even if it does not look damaged.
Ultimately, the decision to replace a helmet or not rests with the wearer. We’re happy you’ve taken the precaution of wearing a bike 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, even if it does not look visibly damaged.
Just as you (should) give your bicycle a full check-up at the beginning of each season to see if anything needs to be replaced and a quick once-over before each ride to make sure the tires are properly inflated and nothing is loose, you should inspect your helmet regularly. Before you take your first ride of the season (preferably more than two minutes before you plan on riding, so you have time to replace if necessary), give your bike helmet a good inspection. And again, if you’ve sustained a heavy blow while wearing that helmet, it’s time to get a new one. If you’re able to read this, the helmet did its job, but now it’s time to retire the old soldier.
Replacing Children’s Bicycle HelmetsIt’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 bike helmet, know where it came from and if the helmet ever sustained any significant hits. 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 only around $30-$40, why take the risk?