Updated July 1st, 2023
Do you want to know if your old bike helmet is still okay to use? Do bike helmets expire? Will a several year old helmet still protect your head as good as it did when new or is it time for a new bike helmet? Bike helmets are good for about 3 to 5 years of use. When the foam, lining, or shell starts to degrade it’s time for a new helmet. Let’s take a look at how to tell if your bike helmet is expired or is just worn out and needs to be replaced.
Why wear a bike helmet in the first place?
There are many reasons why you should wear a bike helmet. The most obvious reason is to protect your head in the event of a crash. A helmet can help prevent concussions and other serious injuries and can make you more visible to motorists, which can help reduce the risk of getting hit by a car.
How does a helmet protect your head?
Helmets protect the head by absorbing and deflecting the force of an impact. They are made from a variety of materials, including plastic, foam, and metal, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Helmets work best when they are worn correctly and fitted to the individual’s head size.
Depending on the type of construction and the materials used, bike helmets will degrade over time. Heavier use will see the materials degrade even faster, especially if the helmet sustains damage.
If a helmet is damaged in an accident it should be replaced and not used again.
Types of bike helmets
There are many different types of bike helmets, but all of them share one common purpose: to protect the head in the event of a crash. Helmets come in three main styles: road, mountain, and multipurpose.
Road helmets are designed for cyclists who ride on paved surfaces and typically have a more aerodynamic shape than mountain helmets. They typically have more venting. Weight and cooling are both important for road bikers while taking on long climbs.
Mountain bike helmets are designed for off-road riding and feature more rugged construction with greater coverage over the back and sides of the head. Most mountain bike helmets have a visor. This is to give the rider some shade and also for deflecting branches and brush out of the rider’s face. They have a thicker structure than road bike helmets. Helmets meant for cross country riding will have lots of venting. Helmets meant for downhill or park riding may have full face coverage as well.
Multipurpose helmets are a mix of the two styles and can be used for either type of cycling. They usually have a more rounded shape than road helmets and less vents than a mountain bike or road helmet.
When considering kids bikes and helmets, safety becomes even more of a priority as kids haven’t yet fully developed their cranium. Some of these helmets also employ MIPS technology which also protects the head from rotational damage.
Common materials in helmets
While there are many different types of bike helmets on the market, almost all share one common component. An EPS foam liner that functions as an energy absorber. This liner is made up of tiny beads of foam that cushion the head in the event of a fall or collision. The foam absorbs the impact of a fall, which can help to prevent serious injuries.
The foam in a bike helmet is typically made from EPS or expanded polystyrene, although some newer models use honeycomb such as Koroyd. Polystyrene is a lightweight plastic that is used in a variety of applications, including food packaging and insulation. It is also used in bike helmets because it can withstand high impacts without breaking or tearing.
Many helmets have MIPS technology. MIPS stands for Multi-Directional Impact Protection System. It lets the helmet rotate without rotating your head. If you hit something at an angle to your head it reduces the forces on your head. This means you are less likely to suffer a head injury.
I personally will not bike with a helmet that doesn’t have MIPS. I once went head first into a tree while mountain biking. My head hit the tree on the front corner of my helmet instead of straight on. I’m convinced MIPS saved my brain that day.
How long do bike helmets last?
Bicycle helmets are designed to protect riders from head injuries. But how long do they last? And when should you replace them?
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends replacing bicycle helmets every 5 to 10 years. The SNELL Foundation which certifies helmets recommends a strict 5 year guideline. Some helmet manufacturers recommend replacing helmets every 3 years.
But not all experts agree with this recommendation. The SNELL Foundation tested some motorcycle helmets that were in storage for over 20 years. They still met the original standard.
Why do bike helmets expire?
Bike helmets are designed to protect your head in the event of a fall or crash, and they work best when they are new. The best way to tell if it’s time to replace your bike helmet is to look for signs of wear and tear.
Over time, the foam inside the helmet can break down and lose its protective qualities. Water, UV light, dirt and other potentially caustic chemicals can speed up this degradation. If your helmet is used a lot and left dirty it will degrade faster.
So how do you know when your helmet has expired?
The average lifespan of a helmet is around 3 to 5 years. However, this can vary depending on the type of helmet, how often it’s used, and the environment it’s exposed to. So how do you know when your helmet has expired? Here are a few ways to tell:
The first way to tell is by looking at the exterior of the helmet. If there are cracks or dents in the helmet shell it’s time to replace it. Bike helmets are only designed to work for a single impact. Once you have damaged it in a crash it is done. They aren’t like football or hocket helmets that are designed to withstand many impacts.
The helmet in the image below is scratched and has a dent after hitting a tree. This helmet has seen its last ride.
If the paint is flaking or starting to peel off, then it’s likely time for a new one. If the shell has become faded or lost its gloss it is also time to replace it.
Another way to tell if your helmet has expired is by checking the interior liner and padding. If you see any damage or cracks in the EPS foam (Dense black beaded foam) it’s time to replace the helmet. If the thin foam padding is starting to peel off or tear away it’s time for a new helmet.
The lining is falling out of the helmet below. It’s time for a new helmet.
Bike helmets expire because the materials used to make them degrade over time, reducing their effectiveness in the event of a crash. Helmets that have been involved in a crash should be replaced immediately, even if they don’t appear to be damaged.
How to extend your helmet’s life – Clean and store it properly
Correct storage can significantly lengthen your helmet’s life. In the grand scheme of things, your helmet mostly sits in storage. If the conditions are less than optimal, this is where most of the degradation of your helmet will occur.
To help reduce this degradation, make sure your helmet is clean before you store it. Dirt and dust can damage the finish and the padding inside the helmet. Second, always store your helmet in a cool, dry place. Heat can damage the foam inside the helmet, and humidity can cause the foam and straps to rot.
Third, try to avoid storing your helmet in direct sunlight. The ultraviolet rays from the sun can fade the colors and damage the plastic shell. Finally, don’t stack other objects on top of your helmet or squeeze them into a small space. This can cause the shell to crack under pressure.
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Co-Founder & Chief Editor
I grew up back east in Pennsylvania and learned to ski on a family trip to Killington, Vermont when I was 6. I immediately fell in love with the mountains and outdoors and have been skiing across the US and Canada ever since. I went to school for Mechanical Engineering, and have a Master’s Degree in Material Science and Reliability.
I am a total gear nerd and love learning how things work and thinking about how they could be improved. Nothing excites me more than trying out new gear. I’d rather spend 3 hours taking my bike apart and learning how to change something than go to a bike shop. These days I reside in Michigan by the Great Lakes and go skiing, biking, and boating as much as possible.