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No, helmets don't last forever

Even if you haven't been in a crash or dropped it, your helmet needs replacing every five years at most. Here's why.

I was at my local dealership last week, catching up with the team there. While waiting for one of the guys to finish talking with a customer I got chatting to a woman, clutching a brand-new helmet, standing by a new Triumph Bobber. “Yours?” I asked. “My husband’s,” she replied. “We’ve just traded that in,” she said, pointing to a ropey old Honda Shadow. “Great move,” I remarked. “I’ve got a mate who’s not long taken delivery of a Bobber and he loves it.” Her husband soon emerged and I chatted with both of them about the purchase. The bloke said that Steve, the dealer principal, wouldn’t let him buy the bike without buying a new helmet. When he showed me the old one my jaw dropped. It was a battle-scarred open-face with all the protective qualities of a hair net. “Good on Steve”, I said. “How long you had that one?” His wife had told me he’d been back into riding for about two years after nearly 20 years off. He’d had the helmet since long before that. Naturally, I reassured him he had made two good decisions and invited him to make a third, by taking a Ride Forever course.

Although I was a bit horrified that this nice chap had been riding around for two years with the equivalent of a hankie on his bonce, I was reassured at the dealer’s responsible approach. Not only are modern skid-lids much better than earlier ones, helmets have a lifespan. How long? The rule of thumb, endorsed by manufacturers like Arai and Shoei, is about five years from first use. But that really is a maximum, because frequent hard use will shorten a helmet’s life. Meanwhile, exposure to sunlight and natural ageing means even a little-used helmet will decline in the protection it offers over time. Shoei advises replacement no more than seven years from manufacture, even if unused.

So what happens to make a helmet go downhill? Let’s take a helmet that gets used a lot: an example would be those worn by our Ride Forever instructors day-in, day-out. They’ll make a helmet last three years, tops. Starting from the outside, the main casing of the helmet is under relentless attack from weathering and stresses. UV rays slowly penetrate the paint finish affecting the composite or plastic shell. Constant tiny stretches as the helmet is worn, especially going on and off your head, also have an effect. Exposure to petrol fumes, cleaners, you name it, it all adds up. All told, these tend to make composite shells less strong and plastic shells more brittle. Not much, but older shells will not perform as well as brand new ones.

The biggest problems, however, are on the inside. There are two main parts to consider: a polystyrene inner shell and the system of padding that fits around your head. Over time, the polystyrene will harden and compress, providing less cushioning, and it may even start to crumble away. This process is speeded up considerably by the moistening then drying out of sweat, and continual exposure to the oils of your hair and skin. Make-up, also. The more you use it, the greater the effect. 

Giveaway signs of a helmet that's had it: abraded padding and worn paint on the polystyrene liner

There are similar issues with the padding. All those foam pads and caps get crushed and their ability to ‘bounce back’ deteriorates. Over time, the fit loosens, degrading impact protection and potentially contributing to a helmet coming off. Taking out removable padding and cleaning it occasionally does help.

The fixings are another worry. Wear and tear on the helmet strap, together with being attacked by chemicals, body oils and sweat can reduce its strength. Constant chafing around where the strap is fixed to the helmet can be another issue.

Of course a helmet you’ve dropped or crashed in warrants immediate replacement. It’s a one-time-use system. And, if you’re buying new, remember it's all about fit. That, and buying from a reputable dealer.

As it happens, my Shoei NXR has just hit the five-year mark. Usually, there would be a whizz-bang new model on the shelves but there’s not. Looks like I’m going to have to ‘shell-out’ for a direct replacement, so I think I’ll go for a lurid colour to cheer me up. And at least it might help me be seen…