1. After a crash.
2. At least every two years.
3. When salt has frazzled the straps.
4. When your helmet stinks so much it goes riding without you.
5. Before the fashion police arrive.
6. After too many suncreen smears
All the above are good reasons to upgrade, except perhaps for number six, although there’s a Vaseline vs helmet standard from Japan that examines “brittleness, swelling, softening and other damage.”
Japanese cyclists must think themselves to be an overly sweaty bunch because Japan is the only country to have a perspiration test for helmets. JIS standards for bikes are famously super stringent and Japan’s JIS helmet standards look just as tough.
Helmet replacement was a topic on the latest Spokesmen podcast and a listener has just emailed this comment:
“Do sweat and sunscreen really make helmets degrade? Granted, they’re only good for one fall, but they’re made of Styrofoam, a plastic that is very stable and long lived. Think of it this way, we’re telling businesses that we don’t want Styrofoam plates and cups going into the waste stream because they don’t degrade in landfills. Yet we’re supposed to believe that they degrade while sitting atop our heads?
“The admonition to replace your helmet every 2 years (as one of the catalogs recommends) strikes me as a marketing issue rather than a safety one. But even with that said, I still end up replacing my helmet every couple of years because the pesky straps and buckles wear out. If they didn’t, I’d probably still be wearing a Bell Biker from the late 1970s. Talk about stylin’!”
For what it’s worth, here’s my take on this issue.
Any third-party unguent has the potential to degrade expanded polystyrene. Lacquers and paints, for instance. Sweat and suncream probably won’t kill the protective qualities of a helmet but they’ll make it smell.
I stand by my comments made on the podcast that helmets should be switched regularly, because to do otherwise risks a fashion faux pas. It also pays to make sure you’re wearing the right kind of helmet. In some American states there are helmet compulsion laws which mandate that roadies cannot wear helmets designed for MTBers, and vice versa. (Only kidding).
It’s also worth noting that the hard-shell helmets of old are a lot more protective than today’s fancy, aerated ones.
But, deft marketing – Helmet-X is lighter, has more vents, is used by pro of the moment – has convinced people that helmets have progressed. This is true aesthetically, and from a comfort point of view. A mean-looking modern helmet looks superior to a Skid Lid and is nicer for your hot noggin.
But, if you truly craved top-notch cranial protection, you’d be better off with a 1980s helmet.
Surprisingly few of today’s helmets meet the tough Snell standards. CPSC-certification and CEN standards may look pukka but they are inferior to Snell. There’s a bunch of Chinese bucket helmets on the ‘certified by Snell’ list and a few from Limar. Specialized helmets are also on the dated-looking Snell website – alone among the well-known branded helmets – but check in the liner for the exact standard now used for each Specialized helmet.
The best thing about the more upmarket, up-to-date helmets – apart from their superior styling, lighter weight, and bucket-loads of vents – is the retention. Prior to the Roc Loc stabilisation head-clasper – now on its fourth generation – helmet fit was hit-and-miss. Retention devices are now commonplace and, anecdotally, appear to offer greater safety than older helmets, although studies show that some aero helmets, upon impact, defeat even the best retention devices.
The American pro-helmet organisation the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute believes the current obsession for vents and sexy helmet shapes, including ‘vent tails’ – is a Bad Thing:
“Unfortunately opening up new vents usually requires harder, more dense foam and squaring off the edges of the remaining foam ribs to squeeze out the most impact protection possible from the narrower pieces still there. Since we believe that rounder shells and less dense foam are virtues in a crash, we don’t recommend hyper-vented helmets unless you can’t live without the added ventilation…
“…better construction techniques don’t often mean better impact protection, just thinner helmets and more vents. In short, more money will buy you more vents, but not necessarily more safety…
“We believe that the ideal surface for striking a road resembles a bowling ball: hard, smooth and round. Round shells reduce to a minimum any tendency for a helmet to ‘stick’ to the surface when you hit, with the possibility of increasing impact intensity, contributing to rotational brain injury or jerking the rider’s neck.”
Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, believes even the toughest of today’s helmet standards are weak:
“There have been so few advances in helmet technology over the last decade, and there is so little incentive for manufacturers to plow money into research and development, that we would not anticipate helmets that could meet an ideal standard in our lifetime, and probably not in yours either.
“There have also been no major advances in lab testing equipment and protocols over the last decade. Old arguments about test rig designs have never been settled. No private or public lab is investing in research on major new systems for improving our testing. No new advances in designing better tests are on the horizon.
“Development of an international bicycle helmet standard is stalled. Europe has a different test rig that it considers superior and the US regards as unnecessarily complex. The US uses two different drop rigs that produce slightly different results and studiously ignores the problem because each rig has its champions who regard the other as inferior, and because nobody wants to invest in new rigs. The US uses 2 metre drop heights, while Europe uses 1.5 metres, resulting in helmets that are thinner and often will not pass US tests.
“In the absence of better standards, manufacturers are stalled in improving their helmets by two constraints: marketing and legal liability. They are convinced that they can’t sell a helmet that is thicker and therefore bulky looking. And their lawyers will not let them advertise that a helmet is ‘safer’ or ‘more protective’ or even ‘designed to prevent concussion’ for fear that they will lose lawsuits when a rider is injured in that helmet.”
Safer lids are also constrained by our litigious society, says the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute:
“If a manufacturer wants to offer a helmet with superior protection, it must build that same protection into every model in its line or face lawsuits charging that they failed to provide the use the most protective technology possible. And if a manufacturer has a new helmet that is much more protective, their corporate attorneys will not permit it to be advertised as superior in preventing injury because they would anticipate losing every lawsuit involving injuries received in that model. So helmet advertising is an exercise in creativity as marketers try to tout their products while never saying anything about their performance.”
I don’t wear a 1980s helmet. I prefer to sacrifice some safety for comfort and style. At the end of the day I’m a sucker for the deft marketing. I wear a Met Stradivarius, the “world’s first bicycle helmet below 200 grams!”
Pix are of me and my three kids wearing our super-trendy Met helmets. The CX pic of me was taken by Brian Smith.