Do Motorcycle Helmets Expire?


Pretty much all of our possessions will eventually reach the day when they are no longer usable or safe for continued use, even your top of the range Shoei motorcycle helmet.
So, where can we find the ‘Use-by’ date on our motorcycle helmet?

Expired stamp
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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Actually, there is no Use-by date sticker in your helmet. What there is though is a sticker showing the manufacture date, which is a requirement of the DOT FMVSS-218 standard.

What The Snell Foundation And Helmet Manufacturers Recommend

Helmet manufacturers recommend that you replace your helmet 3 to 5 years from the ‘date of manufacture’. The manufacture date sticker can usually be found under the comfort liner. Helmet replacement is also endorsed by the Snell Foundation which “recommends that motorcycle helmets be replaced after five (5) years of first use, or less if the manufacturer so recommends.”

What this means is that at around 5 years from the date of manufacture, or date of first use, the onus is on you to voluntarily purchase a new helmet regardless of whether over the past 5 years you rode 100 miles daily, or you only rode 10 miles a week.

Why Replace A Helmet If It’s Not Damaged?

Now, if you’re like me then you raise your hand and ask Why? Why should I replace my helmet if it’s not damaged? What will happen after five years, will the helmet crumble to dust or something?

woman shrugging
Image from pxfuel.com

So, I set out to find out why we are encouraged to replace our helmets after 5 years, and what I found was a whole lot of misinformation, disinformation and hog-wash!

Now don’t get me wrong. I think that replacing your helmet after a reasonable number of years is the sensible thing to do, but doing so based only on the number of years seems rather random. Surely, how often a helmet is used and how it is stored when not in use should be worthy of consideration as well.

What I found is that the main reasons given for replacing helmets are that the various components that make up a helmet can start to degrade. Okay, that makes some sense, but surely some of these degrading parts can be replaced.

Reasons Given For Replacing A Helmet

  • Chin straps can fray. Solution = replace your helmet.
  • Comfort liner can start to degrade and get loose. Solution = replace your helmet.
  • EPS liner will shrink due to evaporation and become hard. Solution = replace your helmet.
  • Sweat, hair, and body oils will damage the inner linings. Solution = replace your helmet.

Lots of reasons which all seem to be because someone read it somewhere on the internet ‘so it must be true’. None of the above are valid reasons to replace your helmet. In fact, some of them are blatantly wrong.

Chin-straps / Retention straps

The chin straps usually get a mention as a part for potential deterioration. Chin straps can fray, and you wouldn’t want your chin strap to snap right when you need it the most. So best you replace your entire helmet. Right?

Wrong. Replacement chin straps can be bought at most places that sell motorcycle helmets.

Actually, I had a chin-strap fail on me a few years back. It wasn’t due to fraying of the strap or stitching coming undone, but the metal bit (see the top part of the image below) which connects to the shell rusted and snapped off while putting the helmet on one morning. (Not 100% sure but it may have something to do with the cat that I mention below).

Motorbike retention strap

Comfort Liner and other Padding

Another good reason given for replacing your helmet is because after years of use sweat, hair oil, and cosmetics can deteriorate the internal components of your helmet. Well, that makes a lot of sense, but that argument just doesn’t hold water.

The M2020 revision of the Snell Foundation standard for motorcycle helmets states that “materials used in the manufacture of the helmet should be of durable quality and not be harmed by exposure to sun, rain, dust, vibration, sweat or products applied to the skin or hair.”

Although I can’t find any mention of sweat in the DOT FMVSS-218 Standard, that doesn’t mean it isn’t covered. Helmets.org even says, “The standards do not permit manufacturers to make a helmet that degrades from sweat”. Though they may be referring to bicycle helmets, why would bicycle helmets be any different from motorcycle helmets?

But even with or without standards, guess what? Comfort Liners and other types of liners are also replaceable! It’s true. If your helmet is still in good condition, but the comfort liner is getting a bit ‘on the nose’ or it’s just not as comfy as it was when you first bought it, you can replace the comfort liner. Why buy a whole new helmet just because your liner is smelly.

The EPS foam liner

Where’s Myth Busters when you need them? Degradation of the EPS liner is such a common fallacy that no-one even bothers to contest the validity of the claim. The claims of EPS degradation include that EPS liner ‘loses efficiency due to evaporation’ and becomes hard such that it is ineffective when it’s needed to absorb the impact during an accident. Solution, replace your helmet!

Cow manure
Image from pxfuel.com

As our British friends would say, “what a load of bollocks!” Thankfully, this untruth about the EPS liner hardening due to evaporation can be disproven. A research article published in March 2016, determined that the impact attenuation properties of EPS foam does not degrade with age.

As the EPS foam liner does not degrade with age there is no need to replace it. Which is probably why you cannot buy replacement EPS liners. And anyway, the way that the EPS liner is affixed to the outer shell of the helmet, you wouldn’t want to be removing and installing a replacement EPS liner.

The Outer Shell

Last but not least is the outer shell of the helmet. Although there are numerous types of materials used for the manufacture of helmet shells, by far the most common are thermoplastic polymers like ABS and polycarbonate, often referred to as PC (not to be confused with your desktop computer). The claim with these types of helmets is that they degrade from exposure to UV (Ultra-Violet light) which weakens them making the shell become brittle.

But this is more than just a claim, it is a fact! Yes, it is true.

Polycarbonate will degrade from the effect of photo-oxidative degradation which is caused by prolonged UV exposure. This is supported in yet another research study into the effects of photo-oxidative degradation on motorcycle helmets published in September 2016.

The good news is that thermoplastic manufacturers are well aware of this problem, and add a stabilizer or inhibitor during the manufacturing process. The stabilizer can either be added to the primary resin or added as a special coating.

However, just because the polycarbonate has been treated with a stabilizer doesn’t mean that the helmet will last forever. So, we could say that this is a win for the helmet manufacturer’s claims that helmets should be replaced every 3 to 5 years. Or not?

How can you tell if your helmet shell is degrading?

Photo-oxidative degradation will not only weaken your helmet, but you will be able to see that the color of your helmet is starting to fade, most likely at the top of your helmet first. If your helmet was made of clear polycarbonate, the PC would start to turn yellow, referred to ‘photo-yellowing’.

How quickly the helmet shell degrades will depend on many factors, like your local area’s susceptibility to UV (don’t mistake UV levels with sunshine levels or temperature), how often you wear your helmet and what time of day, possibly even how you store your helmet when not in use.

Enfield motorcycle and helmet
Image from pxfuel.com

Regular Helmet Maintenance (or How To Make Your Helmet Last Longer)

You should check your helmet regularly, maybe every few months or so, to see for yourself that the EPS liner is still properly attached to the outer shell; to check that the retention straps are not fraying or the stitching is coming undone or even coming loose from the helmet, and that the clip system can stay closed when it’s supposed to. If your helmet has moving parts like a visor, or flip-up chin bar, check that they a not coming loose.

Check the outer shell for chips and cracks. If there are any cracks, you should replace your helmet immediately, because that one little crack could be the weak-spot that opens up in an accident causing potentially serious head injuries to the wearer. Better to be safe than sorry, especially if you have a family that is dependent on you.

Treat your helmet like your life depended on it. Don’t store it in the garage or shed, give it pride of place on a shelf inside your house where it is warm and dry. Don’t sit it upside down like a bird’s nest or the cat might pee in it (trust me, I’m speaking from experience here), sit it right-side up. Don’t leave it by the window in the sun, and don’t leave it in a hot car.

Many modern helmets cost an arm and a leg, so take care of it. Clean the shell from time to time with a gentle cleaner like baby shampoo, warm water and a soft cloth. Your helmet is your best buddy. One day you might want it to save your life. Treat it with respect.

Often, the inner padding and comfort liner are removable and washable. Check your helmet’s documentation or check online. If your padding is removable and washable it’s worth doing a couple of times a year.

Replacing the comfort liner after a year or two will do it the world of good, and it will look and feel like a new helmet. Give your helmet a birthday from time to time.

Birthday cake with candles
Image from pxfuel.com

When To Replace Your Helmet?

I’m sure you’ve been told before, and you’ll be told again, but it’s worth repeating, so here goes.
Definitely replace your helmet after it’s been in a crash where the helmet hit something hard. Even though it might look to be okay, there could easily be a tiny invisible fracture to the helmet shell.

If your helmet has an EPS foam liner, then it is only good for one impact only. This is because once the foam has been depressed or squashed it cannot bounce back into shape again, so on the next impact it will not have any ability to soften the blow.

Don’t believe me? Try this.
Take a piece of polystyerene and hit it with a hammer or something. Now sit down and watch it slowly bounce back to its original shape. You’ll be sitting there forever because it won’t happen. That, my friends, is why it is recommended to replace a helmet after an impact/accident. (Because it can no longer absorb the impact and cushion your head sufficiently). Play it safe, get a new helmet!

When your helmet is 5 years old, is that the time to replace your helmet? Maybe yes, maybe no. I would take the time to give it a thorough inspection inside and out. Be critical. Pull on the chin straps, tug hard. If it breaks, then that might be your answer. If all looks good, the foam liner and the comfort liner are still in good condition and you don’t clock up hundreds of miles a week, then make a judgment call.

In the past decade, helmet technology has come a long way. One of the best reasons to replace can be simply to upgrade to the latest technology in safety, comfort, and possibly weight. If in doubt, chuck it out!


Conclusion

At the risk of having helmet manufacturers coming and throwing rocks through my windows, I think the major helmet brands could do more in the way of motorcycle helmet refurbishment and replacement of replaceable helmet materials, rather than just a blanket recommendation of ‘every 3 years or 5 years, Full Stop’.

Heck, this could even provide employment opportunities for countless people all over the country as helmet reconditioners. Professional helmet relining so that it gets done properly. Helmet manufacturers would still make money by selling the liners, padding, straps and other paraphernalia.

At the present, there are far too many helmets of all types being sent to landfills because no-one is taking the responsibility to do something about recycling expired helmets. Recycling helmets is a subject for another day, but eventually the problem needs to be addressed.

Rubbish dump
Image from pxfuel.com

Don’t misconstrue what I am saying here. I am not advocating wearing a helmet for 7 or 10 years or longer, I’m saying that replacing a helmet is dependent on so much more than a firm 3 to 5-year rule. Of course, if you only wear your helmet for your weekly ride to church each Sunday, then wipe it down with a cloth and pack it away in your closet, I’m sure it could very well last for 10 years.

As mentioned at least a couple of times already, there are far too many variables to say that ‘everyone’ must replace their helmet after 5 years. But, at the end of the day, after you’ve had your helmet for 5 years you probably deserve to buy yourself a new one anyway.

Maybe best to play it safe, especially if you have family and friends that will miss you.


Snell’s position on expiry dates from many decades ago.

Extract from an interview by Motorcycle Product News magazine’s Bob Jackson and Snell’s Gib Brown, director of test development and the foundation’s West Coast lab manager.

MPN: There have been various theories over the years that motorcyclists should purchase new helmets every three years or so. Has that been a marketing ploy, or do the materials used in motorcycle helmet construction fatigue over a period of time?
Brown: I think “fatigue” is probably the wrong word to use. What happens is that many manufacturers use glues to put the liner into the shell. We’ve seen cases where the glues would degrade the liner. We’ve also seen liners degrade from perspiration and hair oils, and they become compacted through normal use. Snell finally looked at this and said there’s no way we can tell an individual how long his or her helmet will be good because the user is the only one who knows how a helmet has been treated. But as a general policy, because of normal degradation and improvements in the helmet, Snell recommends that helmets be replaced every five years.

How strong is Polycarbonate Vs ABS

This is a very interesting comparison test to show how strong ABS and Polycarbonate plastic can be. Well worth a watch. You may be very surprised. Watch a shotgun blast to 2 suitcases.


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