A motorcycle helmet is the single most important piece of kit a motorcyclist can own. It protects us from head injuries, road debris and the elements. Yet more often than not, we do neglect them a fair bit and can be misled by hearsay about their durability and safety.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that old helmets can look perfectly good on the outside but the reality is where the integrity of the helmet matters most is hidden underneath that outer shell.
Do motorcycle helmets expire? Helmets have a limited lifespan because the resin and other materials used in the manufacturing process over time can be effected by your body fluids, hair oils, ultraviolet light and normal wear and tear. It is prudent advice to replace your helmet 5 years after purchase or 7 years after the production date.
So, lets look at helmet degradation in more detail. Forget what you have heard from your mates cousins sisters husband and let’s give you the facts.
- How long do motorcycle helmets last?
- What Causes Helmet Degradation?
- Is the five year helmet replacement a marketing gimmick?
- Date of Manufacture vs Date of Purchase
- Motorcycle Helmet Care and Maintenance
- Final Thoughts
- Motorcycle Helmet FAQ
How long do motorcycle helmets last?
Despite the short answer I wrote above for those in a hurry, it isn’t quite as simple as stating helmets expire in exactly 5 years.
There are several really important considerations which can mean a helmet will last longer than a specific time or indeed need to be replaced sooner.
However, helmet manufacturers do generally agree on the five year helmet replacement rule.
This is also backed by the Snell Foundation who are a not for profit organisation focused on research, education and development of motorcycle helmet safety standards.
Some of the premium helmet manufacturers offer a 5 year warranty. This gives the perception to the consumer that the helmet is good and effective for said amount of years after purchase but this is assuming that the motorcycle helmet is kept in pristine condition without having been dropped or in an accident.
So, whilst 5 years is a good guideline it is definitely not the be all and end all. To understand why you shouldn’t just stick to the 5-year rule no matter what, let’s understand why motorcycle helmets expire.
What Causes Helmet Degradation?
Motorcycle helmets have a limited life span because the outer shell and liner materials used in the construction break down over time.
Now, different components of the helmet will degrade at different speeds and some parts are more important than others. Furthermore the amount the helmet is used and where it is stored when not in use all affect how quickly a helmet will expire.
Let’s start with the basics, even pulling a helmet on and off will cause general wear and tear and all you are doing is using the helmet as it was intended.
Then we have to consider moisture, hair oils and other body fluids, all of that lovely stuff that is both on our heads and in the cleaning products we may use, these things will eventually degrade materials in various places within the helmet.
The best way to understand why helmets don’t last forever is to look at the various components:
The chin strap of a helmet can wear down and fray through normal usage. The last thing you need is for the strap to fail when you most need it.
It may be possible to replace the chin strap with extra parts from the manufacturer, so isn’t necessarily a reason to have to buy a brand new helmet.
The comfort liner also suffers some abuse from the normal use of a helmet.
The helmet padding especially around the cheeks will condense down and lose its shape after a while, leading it to start to feel loose.
This isn’t too much of a problem as you expect a breaking-in period with your helmet as the padding will fit to your head/face shape after wearing for some time.
However, after a lengthy period of time the condensed padding can lead to the helmet being too loose and therefore not fitting you properly.
Above anything else your helmet needs to fit you properly, it doesn’t matter if it is a budget lid or a top of line Arai, if it doesn’t fit then it won’t be fit for purpose in an accident.
The good news is the comfort liner/padding can usually be purchased from the helmet manufacturer and replaced should your cheek pads get a bit beaten up and no longer be up to the job.
The actual comfort padding itself can be worn down by the abrasion of pulling your helmet on/off, the use of glasses, face masks etc. are all things that can cause the comfort liner to wear out.
Even shampoo/conditioner/hair products and cosmetics will have an impact on the liner, eventually wearing it out much like any piece of fabric clothing/accessory.
Depending on the usage of the helmet, replacing the liner can be a cheaper way to refresh your helmet instead of buying a new one. Especially if you are using the helmet daily, but it hasn’t been in an accident or dropped.
However, if you don’t ride everyday and your liner is pretty worn out, it may indicate that the time has come for a replacement, as if the comfort liner is worn out, with little use, it may be a sign that the EPS liner is tired too.
EPS is the most commonly used material for the inner liner and is short for expanded polystyrene and is also known as Styrofoam. This is one of the most important components in the overall build. As a result is also one of the most important to be aware of when deciding if a replacement is required.
The Styrofoam liner is the layer between the outer shell and inner padding. It is not removable from the helmet and cannot be replaced.
However, it is really important to dispel the myth that it can degrade and break down from oil, sweat and everyday chemicals we use on our face and hair. It is not true, EPS liners will outlast pretty much any other component on the helmet and retain its protective properties for a really long time.
It is hard to know if it is damaged or degraded, and therefore isn’t an indicator of whether you need to replace your helmet or not.
The main thing to note is that if you drop the helmet or are in an accident which ends up with the helmet being in an impact, you do not know if the layer has been compromised and so it is prudent to always get a new helmet.
Some helmet manufacturers like Schuberth will actually allow you to send the helmet back to them and they do a scan to check the structure is intact and safe, similar to an X-ray.
However, you would have to get in touch with the individual manufacturer via your dealer to see if this is possible.
While working in a motorcycle store some years ago, a customer came in with a helmet in which he had cut out the Styrofoam liner in order to fit in some over-the-ear headphones.
Please do not do this, it is there to absorb the impact away from your head in an accident, shaving the liner down means your head will absorb more energy than it should.
The outer shell of the helmet however, can degrade and wear down for multiple reasons but the main one being prolonged UV exposure which makes them brittle and ineffective.
There are several main materials manufacturers use to produce their outer shells: polycarbonate and ABS (thermo-plastic), fibreglass, carbon fibre and kevlar composites.
Thermo-plastic is widely used in helmet production and is usually found on the cheaper end of the scale. Polycarbonate in particular is affected by UV-lights, however manufacturers have started adding stabilisers into the process to help keep this problem at bay.
The problem is the stabiliser won’t last forever and eventually the outer layer will degrade and be rendered ineffective.
The outer shell is the first point of impact in an accident and therefore it is imperative that it remains in top condition.
One of the other reasons a helmet can expire is because the glue holding all the layers together can eventually be affected by all those oils, chemicals, cosmetics and sweat etc.
Eventually layers can separate, and the last thing you want is the outer layer to become detached from the Styrofoam in an accident. This process takes a long time, but it is important to be aware of.
Other reasons helmets expire
- Weather – rain/sun exposure are the main reasons helmets get worn down quickly, if you commute everyday in all weather, replacing your helmet regularly is a very good idea.
- Climate – if you ride in extreme heat, humidity, or extreme cold these are all factors that will affect your helmet’s lifespan, especially if you go from one to the other quickly.
- Cleaners, fuel, road debris and other commonly encountered materials can degrade your helmet.
- Dropping or being involved in an accident, you should replace your helmet immediately.
- Every year there is a noticeable improvement as helmet technology evolves, and after 5 years of wearing the same helmet, you will be amazed at the new features that a new one can offer.
Is the five year helmet replacement a marketing gimmick?
The 5 year rule is a good guideline for the average motorcycle rider to be aware of. If you are rarely using your helmet and it is kept in a dry place out of direct sunlight, then you may get longer wear out of it.
On the other hand if you ride everyday in all sorts of weather and conditions then your helmet is suffering some abuse and will need to be replaced sooner.
The 5 year rule is not a marketing gimmick, it is a way to ensure that riders are protected for the duration of its use.
We have dispelled some myths about the Styrofoam liner breaking down etc. but the fact is lids do have components that degrade and this process means the helmet is no longer stable or fit for purpose, which is why the five year period rule is put in place.
Date of Manufacture vs Date of Purchase
Your helmet will have a date of manufacture stamped on it somewhere, usually on the Styrofoam liner itself and also on a label with the safety certificate.
It does not have a date of purchase stamp or an expiry date sticker.
Some stores will have lids that may have sat on the shelves for as long as a couple of years so it is really important to check your date of manufacture.
While a helmet sat in its cover in a box, isn’t being subjected to any wear and tear or exposed to sunlight or chemicals, it is still ageing.
The glue in the helmet can slowly lose its stickiness and therefore become ineffective pretty quickly when it is bought and being used if it was manufactured years before being sold.
Having said that, it is very rare to purchase a helmet that has just come off the factory line unless it’s the just released latest model.
The general rule of thumb is that if a motorcycle helmet has a manufacture date of 2 years prior to purchase, it should be good for the following 5 years from the date of purchase providing it is looked after and used in normal conditions.
Should the helmet be 5 years old when purchased, you will only really want to use it for a year, maybe two before you replace it.
Many stores will start to discount their stock when the manufacturing dates start to get a bit too old.
Tip: It is a good idea to make a note of when you purchased your helmet, so you have both the date of manufacture and purchase when deciding if it’s time to replace it.
Motorcycle Helmet Care and Maintenance
Lids are expensive, but they are an essential bit of safety gear that in the unfortunate event of an accident may well save your life.
So, it should be treated with the utmost respect and caution, it is an item that deserves as much TLC as your beloved motorcycle itself.
Here are some top tips for keeping your helmet in good condition so that it serves a good turn:
- Keep it stored (ideally in a cover) in a dry place where humidity or extreme temperatures isn’t an issue and out of direct sunlight.
- Do not use it as a storage basin for your gloves, bandana, keys or anything else you can think of. These items can cause damage to the inner layers and also it is pretty unhygienic to put your riding gloves into your helmet which you then put on your head.
- Keep an eye on chin straps, visors, inner visors, any moving parts, make sure they are all solid and not working their way loose, if they are and it’s possible, replace them.
- Do not do a DIY job on the EPS liner, it should not be cut up or carved out, same goes for the inner lining.
- Check the outer shell for any cracks or paint fleck, if you find any then you will need to replace it as you don’t know how affected the shell is further down the layers.
- Keep your lid clean! There are plenty of products available that can keep it fresh and dirt-free. Most comfort liners are removable and can be washed in the machine or by hand so this is always worth doing, especially if you ride a lot. Keeping the visor/outer shell free of grime, water and bugs will go a long way to help it last.
Helmets don’t last forever, but they can last a good few years, with the proper care and attention paid to them. Look after it as you do your motorcycle and it won’t let you down when you need it most.
Just as important though is to replace it when required – whether that be because you’ve had it over 5 years or you dropped it, it’s just not worth the risk.