Why Do Motorcycle Helmets Expire? This Could Save Your Life

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Safety equipment is an essential part of driving and transportation. We use things like seatbelts, airbags, car seats and many other things to make driving as safe as possible. This is especially true when it comes to motorcycle helmets. According to the CDC, helmets reduce the risk of death by 37% and head injuries by 69%. 

So, why do motorcycle helmets expire? The polycarbonate or fiberglass outer shell degrades over time and becomes brittle due to a breakdown in the molecular structure of the material. This molecular degradation decreases how safe a motorcycle helmet is over time, so they should be replaced based on the manufacturer’s specification.

Motorcycle helmets are designed to keep you safe in an accident, but, as with anything, helmets are subject to wear and tear from regular use. Helmets have a lifespan, and after that lifespan they “expire” and require replacement.

Anatomy Of A Motorcycle Helmet

Understanding the construction of the helmet will help you to understand how they wear out. Helmets are relatively simple in construction, but are still very purpose driven, and helmet technology updates constantly.

The shell is the exterior of the helmet and is typically made of thermoplastics, fiberglass, composite material, kevlar, and/or carbon fiber. High-end helmets use kevlar and carbon fiber, which is extremely durable and offers the premium safety standard but comes with a large price tag.

Any kind of helmet will be safe as long as it complies with DOT standards. Helmets also have a Snell rating, and while that is not a legally required standard, it is an indicator of a quality helmet.

In the middle of the helmet structure is a layer designed to absorb the impact of a crash. This layer is made of polystyrene and comes in different compositions for different levels of impact absorption. In the event of an accident, as this layer absorbs the kinetic energy, the material can crack or otherwise break. This constitutes replacement as the helmet’s ability to take on another hit is critically reduced.

The interior cushions of the helmet are made of synthetic fiber and are designed to be comfortable against your head. They also offer moisture control features to keep you cool. While this layer isn’t the first line of defense against a crash, if it wears out it can make for an uncomfortable ride. Furthermore, a loose-fitting helmet is not safe. 

Additionally, there are adhesives, finishes, and other treatments within the helmet that are subject to wear and tear. Over the lifespan of the helmet all the layers of the helmet will eventually be compromised. You can think of a helmet as a consumable that should be updated regularly.

When Should I Replace My Helmet?

Knowing when to replace your helmet can be a bit confusing, but there are some simple guidelines to follow. As a rule of thumb, replace your helmet every 3-5 years to keep it fresh. Manufacturers may have guidelines specific to their products, so refer to any paperwork that comes with your helmet.

There will be a date of manufacture stamped on the helmet somewhere discreet, yet accessible. Use this date as your baseline to calculate replacement intervals. If you’re unsure, you can take it into a store to get some expert advice.

Outside of regular wear and tear, are there times when a helmet needs replaced? There may be times when you have to replace your helmet aside from regular intervals. When to do this mostly deals with fitment and concerns about the integrity of the helmet.

Perhaps you got your helmet as a kid and have since outgrown it. Perhaps it just doesn’t fit like it used to for whatever reason. Having a helmet that fits well is as important to safety as what the helmet is made up of. Make sure the cushioning fits right and that the chin strap fits and adjusts. If it’s too small or too loose, it’s time for an update.

There may be times when your helmet is accidentally dropped onto the ground. It can be a bit confusing to decide whether or not that constitutes replacement. Typically, a drop from your handlebars while parked might not warrant a replacement. If something like this happens, consider it’s age and overall condition to make a judgement call. The bottom line is this: if you’re concerned, replacing it will give you the greatest peace of mind.

Is It Okay To Buy A Used Or Expired Helmet?

An unscheduled helmet replacement can be a bit of a strain on your wallet. A new, good helmet will cost anywhere from $100 to $400+ depending on the features, which can be hard to fork over when you haven’t been saving up.

You might then entertain the idea of getting a used helmet or reusing an expired helmet. Here are a few reasons to absolutely not do that.

  1. You can never fully trust that it’s good. The Craigslist ad may be very compelling, but there is just no way to prove that the helmet is fully intact. That is a serious gamble with your safety.
  2. Similarly, it can be hard to tell the age. While there may be a date stamp, there is no way to tell what kind of use it has had since that date. Even if it looks shiny and new, you can’t fully trust it.
  3. It might never really fit right. Though it might be the right size, the previous owner’s specific head shape has imprinted in the cushions, which means it might not ever fit you the same way it fit them.
  4. Don’t overlook the hygiene factor. The previous owner will have inadvertently deposited oils from skin and hair into the cushions. Furthermore, dirt, grime, sweat, and potentially bugs could be embedded in the cushions. Not worth it.

So, while the price may seem steep, it is worth your while–and dignity–to spring for a brand new helmet as needed. A used helmet just has too many risks which will directly affect you (not just your wallet) in the event of an accident.

What To Look For In A Helmet?

It can be easy to get caught up in the style of helmet, but this shouldn’t be the basis for choosing one to wear. If you’re in the market for a new helmet, here are some things to consider:

  • Safety first. Above all is the safety a helmet will provide. Make sure your new helmet is DOT approved and even Snell rated. Buy a trusted brand from a reputable retailer to get the best quality helmet.
  • Fitment. This goes hand in hand with safety. As mentioned previously, a loose-fitting helmet is unsafe. Take some measurements of your head and try several helmets on to get the best idea for fit. A couple litmus tests for fitment are 1) if your cheeks kind of look like a squirrel’s and 2) moving the chin bar should move your face, not just the helmet.
  • Types. The three types of helmet are full face, ¾ and ½. The full face has a built in chin guard and is the safest design. The ¾ is missing the chin guard but comes down and covers the cheeks and ears. The ½ offers the least coverage, but tends to be less expensive. These types cover different styles, from street riding to dirt riding and everything in between. 
  • Comfort. If you’re going to be doing a lot of riding, the least of your worries should be how comfortable your helmet is. Depending on your specific needs, get something that is breathable, yet blocks out the wind. Having a visor helps block wind as well as the sun. If you wear a bandana or balaclava, make sure it doesn’t interfere with the fitment of the helmet.

Features. Helmet technology is constantly evolving and there are a ton of handy features available. You can get helmets with built in bluetooth speakers to enjoy music through. Some helmets have built in two-way radios to communicate with your riding partners. There are also a ton of different graphics and colors to fit your style.

There’s certainly a lot to consider when it comes to helmets. Keep in mind that your helmet is the top safety feature for riding. Do your research and use this article to keep your helmet up to date.

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Kyle Cannon

Kyle currently works as a mechanical engineer and graduated with a minor in automotive engineering. He loves restoring motorcycles, has a vast knowledge of how they work, and has sold his restoration projects to customers from all over the United States.

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