Helmet Fact vs. Ficion: How Often to Replace?

Helmet Fact vs. Fiction: How often to Replace?

May 08, 2014

Fact or Fiction?
Do you need to replace a motorcycle helmet that has never been in an accident every 3-5 years?

When I bought my first bike at 19, it was the coolest mode of transportation I could afford. The only helmet in my budget was the free one my friend pulled out of his garage from under some old boxes. Because his dad gave it to him, it could easily have been 20 years old.

The thought never entered my mind, “is this helmet still good?” It was free.

As an adult, I bought many helmets, but safety was never my primary concern. I like new helmets and different styles, especially depending on my riding conditions. If I’m using a windshield on a long trip, or just riding locally, I interchange helmets—even my old ones that didn’t get much use. They still look new.

I had heard that motorcycle helmet manufacturers recommend replacing helmets every five years, many every three years, but I assumed that was to help them sell more helmets. I was really surprised to find that the Motorcycle Safety Foundation recommends every three years, because they don’t sell or promote helmet brands.

Now I’m curious so I decided to get to the bottom of the issue using a tool that wasn’t available to me at 19, the Internet.
Apparently, I’m not the only person asking this question. There are countless blogs and discussions on the subject, but here are the facts I found (not opinions).

Every helmet manufacturer recommends replacing its helmets at least every five years, some every three years. All associations, safety groups, and everyone I could find from Snell to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation all have the same recommendations.

I started with Snell because they are a reputable source, they don’t sell helmets directly, and every online discussion typically references this quote:

Why should you replace your helmet every five years?

“The five-year replacement recommendation is based on a consensus by both helmet manufacturers and the Snell Foundation. Glues, resins and other materials used in helmet production can affect liner materials. Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal "wear and tear" all contribute to helmet degradation. Petroleum based products present in cleaners, paints, fuels and other commonly encountered materials may also degrade materials used in many helmets possibly degrading performance. Additionally, experience indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards. Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.”

I concluded after a lot of reading that the helmet I wore from my friend’s garage might have been slightly more effective than a paper hat. It had been painted with oil-based paint, had degrading leather straps, and may or may not have ever been in an accident or had a bike dropped on it. Luckily, I never tested it with my head on the pavement.

It is unlikely you are wearing a helmet as bad as the one I wore from my friend’s garage, but what about the one in your garage that is three years old and has a couple hundred riding hours?

There are no definitive studies that show a helmet is magically no longer useful after three or five years. I thought that Shoei Helmets had the most honest answer, but even they still recommend replacing a helmet 5 years after retail purchase. I don’t think you will ever get anyone on the record saying helmets are good for any longer than that; it just opens them up to too much liability in the event of a lawsuit.

“Helmet Replacement
Ultimately, the useful service life of a safety helmet is dependent on the intensity and frequency of its use. Helmet replacement is recommended even if only one of the under-mentioned points applies:

  1. The helmet was subjected to an impact.
  2. The comfort padding or the retention system has become loose due to heavy use or display signs of deterioration.
  3. The synthetic foam padding displays signs of heavy use and the helmet feels too loose. Test: with the retention system fastened, the helmet turns to the side when you gently shake your head.
  4. There are indentations in the EPS liner and/or white scratches can be seen on surfaces with black paint.
  5. Even if none of these is applied, we, SHOEI, recommend replacement in 5 years after its first purchased at retail.”

Assuming you want to replace your helmet as recommended, when does the clock start ticking? Helmets now have a manufactured date inside them, but it is unlikely you would buy it the same day it was manufactured. If you got it for Christmas and then waited 6 more months to wear it for the first time, what happens then?

You can see above that SHOEI recommends replacing 5 years from retail purchase date, but not all manufacturers or safety groups have the same response. Many of them recommend replacement from manufactured date.

I’m going with common sense. Heat, chemicals, sunlight, incidental drops or bangs, all add up over time.

I’m going to start the clock from when I use the helmet for the first time and take into account how often it is used.

Common sense also dictates that helmet technology improves over time. I’m going to replace my regular use helmets every 3-5 years. Some of my favorites I may keep longer if not worn regularly, but once something gets into the 6-year plus category, I’m going to replace it.

The question you should really ask yourself when deciding whether or not to replace your helmet is this: if this helmet fit properly, would I trust it in the event of an accident on the head of the person I love most?

If not, it goes up on the wall in your garage like an old license plate to be admired, but not used.

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