Wondering if it’s time to replace your bike helmet?
Here are the facts about when to replace your helmet, and the truth about some myths you may have heard.
Quick version: Replace your bike helmet immediately if any of the following are true:
- You crashed while wearing it
- You dropped it hard enough to do visible damage
- It was made in the 1970s or early ’80s
- It doesn’t have a CPSC, ASTM or Snell sticker inside
- You can’t adjust it to fit correctly
Many sources say replace your bike helmet after 3 years, apparently to sell more helmets – the reasons often given are not true (see Common Myths About Helmet Replacement).
Snell, one of the major testing organizations, says replace every 5 years, based on what they call a prudent safety philosophy.
8 years seems to be a reasonable maximum bike helmet lifetime, based on one manufacturer’s helmet degradation testing, as described on helmets.org.
Fashion and style are great reasons to replace your helmet: the whole point is to enjoy cycling with good head protection. If your helmet looks and feels good then surely you’ll enjoy the ride more, while being as safe as possible.
More detailed information about when to replace your bike helmet
Your bike helmet was crashed, dropped, or damaged
If you are in a crash, replace your helmet. A bike helmet is a safety appliance good for one incident only, so if you are in a crash where you are hit or fall hard, replace it. Even a helmet that appears undamaged should be replaced. This is for two reasons:
- People who are in crashes often don’t remember hitting their heads, or think the impact wasn’t hard, when in fact they did and the helmet did its job.
- The damage to a crashed helmet may not be visible. The outer shell may hide cracks or deformations of the protective foam inside, which make it useless as head protection.
If your bike helmet was manufactured before 1985
Helmets made between about 1970 and 1985 included foams and materials which could not possibly give adequate protection from injury. Standards introduced in the mid-80s removed those substandard models from the market, but helmets from the period still survive. If you have one, destroy it immediately.
Your bike helmet doesn’t have a sticker from a testing standards organization
Any helmet legal for sale in the US will have a certification sticker, from CPSC, ASTM or Snell. If your helmet doesn’t have one, don’t trust it, replace it.
Your bike helmet doesn’t fit well
A helmet can only protect your head if it fits properly, which means it is positioned correctly over vulnerable parts of your skull, and won’t be dislodged by sudden motion and the forces unleashed in a crash.
If the design of the helmet, its shape, or the straps and buckles don’t let you get a secure and comfortable fit, it will not provide adequate head protection. Replace it with one that fits you well.
Common myths about when a bike helmet should be replaced
Bike helmets should be replaced every three years – bunk
The three years rule is just nonsense. Damage and fit rules apply instead.
Helmets are damaged by long term exposure to sweat and should be replaced – bunk
No helmet material that can be damaged by sweat can pass the standards certification. See the next section. Your helmet may get grungy from sweat and body oils, but that’s a different matter. You can clean it, you know!
The foam used in bike helmets degrades over time – bunk
The EPS foam used in bike helmets is remarkably immune to damage from just about anything other than impact. Liquids, oils, and salts encountered in normal use and storage will have no degrading effect on a helmet at all. If you manage to immerse your helmet in an industrial solvent, then okay, replace that one.
People looking to sell more helmets may tell you the foam dries out, or outgasses over several seasons. This is complete rubbish. Helmet foam is unbelievably stable, and will most likely be intact in whatever our landfills have become by the next geological age.
Hot cars and sunlight damage bike helmets – bunk
A helmet left in a car every day in a hot climate will still be perfectly ok. The heat needed to actually harm a helmet is more in line with a hot oven.
Sunlight will have very little effect on the foam of a helmet. Manufacturers add UV inhibitors to the materials for shells and other plastic components, so sun damage is a myth. If a helmet is faded, perhaps from a fading pigment in the plastic, you might want to replace it for aesthetic reasons, but if otherwise undamaged it should still protect you.
Newer bike helmets protect you better, with updated designs and materials – maybe true
It depends what you started with really. If your current helmet meets safety standards, is not damaged, and fits you well, a newer one will not automatically protect you any better, though the newer MIPS helmets are said to offer better protection in more kinds of crashes. Also, more attention is being paid to prevention of concussion now: existing helmet standards were focused on direct impact absorption rather than other kinds of impacts that can produce concussion.
A newer helmet may offer more convenience, comfort, or other features that make it better than your older helmet – all good reasons to replace it if you want. The best helmet is one that offers adequate protection and you enjoy wearing!
Aesthetics and style preference are perfectly good reasons to replace your bike helmet. Actually, given that an undamaged helmet can be functional and meet requirements for many years, you don’t necessarily have to replace a good helmet when a new one appeals to you.
Of course, you can stick with one helmet if you prefer, but if you want to be able to match your helmet with whatever outfit you’re wearing, why not? As long as you are wearing a helmet, why not look and feel good in it?
It’s also not a bad idea to have a spare on hand if you ride a lot, just in case of an accident.
What to do with a bike helmet that needs to be replaced
When a bike helmet fails or must be discarded, make sure it can’t be used again. Someone may find it and not realize it is no longer safe. Remove that possibility by cutting the straps off or breaking it in two.
Time for a new helmet? Start here – we hand pick the best of the best in bike helmets for women.
Some interesting innovations that may help people who hate wearing a bike helmet.
More good information on whether or not to replace your bike helmet, from helmets.org.