Without getting into the “does it or doesn’t it” debate, a helmet’s primary job is to save your life, or at the very least prevent serious brain injury in a collision. As a piece of safety equipment, it most likely pays to keep it in good condition and replace it when needed. But when exactly does a helmet need to be replaced? Barring any accident where the helmet does it’s job, or accidental damage from a drop or whatnot, there’s still must be some finite helmet lifespan.
I’ve had my Bontrager Ballista helmet for over six years now. It fits my head perfectly and I find it super comfy. In fact if they still made them, I’d probably buy another one. After many years of frequent use, I sometimes wonder if it’s still “good enough” to protect my head?
Above: A year 2016 me, off on a cycling adventure, Ballista in tow.
If you listen to helmet manufacturers, they often quote a bicycle helmet lifespan of anywhere from two to five years. Of course you should take that with a grain of salt, they’re not the most non-bias source of information. After all, they need to sell more helmets! Information is tricky to come by, but I did find this quote from the distributer of Bell and Giro helmets “We normally recommend a new lid every three years depending on usage as even with no impacts there is a constant knocking and pressing of the EPS as the helmet is stored, dropped, placed on hard surfaces etc.“
Above: A year 2022 me, still rocking the Ballista!
To counter, in tests conducted by MEA Forensic, they concluded that helmet foam can last for many more years without any noticeable reduction in crash protection performance. Their study (which included some helmets that were 20+ years old) found that “There is no justification for two to ten year replacement recommendations based on impact performance.“
I’m not sure how much general use and everyday knocks some of those older helmets had, or if they were “new old stock” helmets. If you wear a helmet a lot, just the everyday wear and tear may be starting to take it’s toll. The harsh UV light from the sun attacks the helmet from the outside, while salty sweat and sunscreen will degrade it from the inside. I’m not sure I’d trust a 20 year old lid. Plus they looked truly awful. Stackhat, anyone?
So when should you replace your helmet?
You’ve had a crash. It goes without saying that if you crash your helmet, replace it immediately. It’s performed it’s duty and is done. There’s no if’s or but’s here. Crash = replace.
The inner lining is worn out or the straps are faulty. If there is any wear and tear to the lining, retention mechanisms or straps, replace it immediately. It’s likely that the helmet will not perform as it should in the event of a collision.
It’s old technology. There have been a number of advancements in helmet technology over the past few years with MIPS and other safety features. Nothing more than marketing? Who knows. If you feel these are worthwhile to you, replace your helmet with something offering more advanced safety features.
It no longer fits you well. Perhaps your old helmet isn’t a very good fit. Helmet fit can be very personal, so if you are uncomfortable in your current lid, give a new one a try! Modern helmets are getting lighter, more adjustable and are actually very comfortable, unlike some helmets of day’s gone.
You simply fancy a new one. There’s nothing wrong with simply wanting a newer, nicer, more aero, or different style of helmet. Or just one that matches your new cycling jersey! In that case, break out the credit card and buy a new one! You can always keep the old one as a backup lid.
Fingers crossed you’ll never need to replace your helmet because of a crash, but if any of the other reasons listed above apply or appeal to you, maybe it’s time to go shopping?