I know how important it is to replace my bike's tires, grips, chain and other components before they get too worn out. But how often do we think about that most critical of cycling safety gear, the helmet? I never thought about it until mine started to feel a little uncomfortable. So how often should you replace your bike helmet?

You should replace your bike helmet every three to five years, but you may have to replace it sooner if you notice any damage or have a wreck that causes you to hit your head.

That surprised me. I figured that helmets were pretty much indestructible, as tough as they are. But a helmet can wear out just like anything else, especially if it gets damaged. Sometimes you can't even see damage, which is why I want to teach you what I learned.

How Does A Bike Helmet Wear Out?

Every approved bike helmet sold nowadays uses foam to absorb impact. Otherwise, the impact would go right to your head. So that foam has to be in good shape.

But here's the thing: Foam gets brittle and crumbly. Have you ever seen an old, torn up tractor seat with the foam exposed? You can push your finger right through it.

Long before it crumbles, foam loses its strength. An impact that would compress new foam may just crack worn out foam. And if it's cracking, it's not absorbing energy. In that case, your head would absorb the energy. That's no good.

You can't tell how new foam is by looking at it. That's why you should replace your helmet every three years, or five years if it's rarely used and exposed to the elements.

Does An Impact Really Make That Much Of A Difference?

I once saw a minor accident in a construction zone near my house. A car slid on wet pavement and smacked into a concrete barrier. No one was hurt, and the car had only a really bad dent to attest to the impact. But a couple days later, I was driving through the same area and saw the crew replacing the barrier that had been hit.

I asked my friend who works for the highway department why they would replace the barrier when it had only a little scratch on it.

"It was damaged in the wreck."

"It looked like a little chip was knocked out of it. That's all."

"The damage was on the inside where you can't see it."

It's called impact stress damage. A heavy jar can damage even something as strong as a concrete traffic barrier. If your bike helmet is impacted at all, it's best to replace it. If it protected your head from serious injury just one time, it has done its job and you've got your money's worth out of it.

Is There A Way To Tell If A Bike Helmet Is Damaged?

Helmet inspection should be a regular part of your bike maintenance schedule. When you check your tire pressure and make sure your chain is free of rust and excessive gunk, take a good look at the foam part of your helmet. If there are any visible cracks, chunks missing or discoloration, replace it.

A crack is an obvious point of failure, at least potentially. Guess what will happen to that crack if it ever hits pavement? It is likely to split. And a split helmet can't protect your head.

Missing chunks are dangerous in another way. A helmet has to fit your head almost perfectly in order to protect it. That's why you have to adjust one when you first get it. Well, if there's a chunk missing from the foam, there's no way the helmet fits snugly on your head anymore. You can't fix it either. If there's a chunk missing, get a new helmet.

Discoloration doesn't seem like it would be harmful. I didn't think it was either, not until I started looking into when you are supposed to replace a helmet. The thing is that discoloration is a dead giveaway that the foam is old. Old foam has no structural integrity. Just like an old tractor seat, it will crumble and break apart, especially if impacted.

What About Bike Helmets With A Plastic Shell?

Some bike helmets have a plastic shell around the foam, sure. But does that mean the helmet will last longer or retain its strength after a crash?

I've seen some info on the internet that says helmets with a plastic shell do indeed last longer and are strong enough to withstand multiple impacts. I wouldn't bet on it. The plastic is mostly meant to look cool. It can be colorful or have awesome logos printed on it, but it's just thin plastic. Any impact energy is going to go right through it and into the foam. The foam still gets the impact.

What Am I Supposed To Do With My Old Bike Helmet?

My first reaction to this question was to give the helmet away to an underprivileged kid that didn't have one. That seemed like the right thing to do. But then I started to think about it. That would be something like throwing a drowning man a life preserver that doesn't float. If a kid is wearing an unsafe helmet, is that any better than no helmet at all?

The best thing to do for a kid that doesn't have a bike helmet would be to buy him or her a new one. You can get a really good unisex kid's bike helmet like this one for less than $20.

So what to do with an old or damaged one? Well, you could just throw it away. But there are ways to keep them out of a landfill, which is probably the most responsible thing to do.

I've seen people turn old bike helmets into planters. You just line the inside with some kind of loose cloth, then add soil and a plant or seeds. The straps make a perfect hanger.

If you're more into recycling than repurposing, try to pry the plastic shell off of the foam. You may be able to recycle it in a community bin. The foam itself, which is likely EPS foam, is currently only recyclable in once American city: Portland, Oregon. If you live in Portland, go ahead and recycle it. If not, get creative.

Break the foam apart and use the chunks as packaging peanuts. You can also take some time and break it apart into small pieces and use it as a soil amendment, just like perlite. It will keep soil in your planters or flower bed nice and loose. You can also use it to stuff pet bedding. You can probably think of dozens of ways to reuse the foam from your old bike helmet if you want to get creative.

What Should I Look For In A New Helmet?

So you've decided you need a new bike helmet, and you've figured out what to do with your old one. Now you need a new one. You want to get the best, right?

First, you have to get the right size helmet. They typically come in small, medium, large and extra large sizes. These aren't standardized by any means, so you'll have to measure your head and go by that. Most all helmets list, in addition to the S,M,L and XL, the measurements they fit. Try a helmet on if you go shopping at a brick and mortar store. Be careful to make sure you get the right size if you buy online. If you wear prescription glasses or sunglasses, wear them if and when you try the helmet on.

The adjustments on the straps should be simple, with only one adjustment point, if possible. The best place for an adjustment slider is right under the chin. It should stay tight. When you try the helmet on, tighten it up and try to wiggle the straps loose. You shouldn't be able to loosen the straps unless that's what you're actually trying to do. Online shoppers: Check out the buyer's reviews carefully. Look for red flags, like "came loose," "slid off" or "couldn't tighten straps."

You should also look for a safety seal or endorsement from a respected organization. CPSC, ASTM and Snell are all good endorsements.

If you find a nice helmet that fits well, adjusts easily, doesn't come loose and carries the nod from a well-known safety institute, you're probably all good. Features like reflective safety stickers and hair ports are good if you need them, but they are not totally necessary features for everyone. I got this basic one online. It is made of thick, tough foam and has a thin plastic shell. It's not fancy or loaded with features, but it is safe and suits its purpose well.

Another thing to think about when choosing a new bike helmet is any local laws that may apply. Many states and localities require a bike rider to wear a helmet, but very few places dictate and specifications. I know of at least one area that requires all riders to wear a helmet that has a plastic shell. Check your local and state laws each time before you buy a new bike helmet. You never know when the laws may change.

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