I bought my first ATV and motocross-style helmet back in 2004. Since then, it’s gotten company by an ever-increasing number of new ones, but I still keep my old helmets sitting on the shelf. I’ve heard some people say not to use an old helmet as it’s no longer safe. Out of curiosity, I researched how long a helmet is supposed to last and when it’s time to replace it with a new one.
ATV and motocross helmets do not have a set expiration date. Still, helmet manufacturers and certification organizations recommend replacing them after three to five years of normal use, or seven years after the manufacturing date. A helmet that was in a crash should be replaced immediately.
On various forums on-line, you will find a wide range of different opinions on when to replace a helmet. While personal opinions are fine, I was looking for hard facts. One should assume that helmet manufacturers know just about all there is to know about helmets. But to keep things as objective as possible, I also looked up information from independent resources that do not sell helmets, such as helmet certification organizations and other relevant studies.
Ultimately it will be up to you to decide. When in doubt, always follow the manufacturer’s advice and the organization that has certified your helmet.
What does the helmet-industry say about helmet life expectancy?
Not all manufacturers provide a helmet replacement policy, while others give detailed recommendations for when to replace your helmet.
No manufacturer, however, has a definite expiration date where the helmet becomes unsafe to use.
Note that the various manufacturers’ company policies for helmet replacement do not necessarily reflect their helmets’ build quality.
Shoei: Replace the helmet five years after purchase
Shoei says that “Ultimately, the useful service life of a safety helmet is dependent on the intensity and frequency of its use.”
They also provide a set of detailed guidelines that help you determine when you should replace your helmet.
They recommend replacing the helmet if only one of the listed points applies, or five years after it’s first purchased at retail.
Arai: Replace the helmet after five years of use
Arai provides information on when to replace a helmet in their warranty card.
“All Arai helmets are warranted against defects in materials and workmanship, and are serviceable only for the properly fitted user for 5 years of use, but no more than 7 years from date of manufacture. It should be replaced within 5 years of first use.”
Troy Lee Designs: Replace the helmet after three years of use
Troy Lee Designs provide information about helmet life expectancy on their FAQ-page:
“There is no exact timeline for helmet replacement – the useful life of a helmet will vary for all users. The basic rule of thumb, regardless of use, is that you should replace most helmets after no more than 3 years. If you ride 8-10 hours a week and wash your helmet and liners regularly, you may be able to get 2 years out of a helmet before wear and tear.”
Also, they write:
“Remember: UV damage and the natural aging process of the materials also start to degrade the helmet’s ability to protect you. The life of your helmet is decreased if you do not keep your helmet clean.”
Snell: Replace the helmet after five years of normal use
Snell is an independent organization that tests and certifies helmets according to a set of relevant test criteria. As they do not manufacture or sell helmets, they can provide an objective recommendation on when to replace your helmet.
Here is why they recommend replacing a helmet after five years:
“Unused helmets stored in good condition do not automatically expire after five years. Replacing helmets every five years is a judgement call based on testing helmets used by the California Highway Patrol by Dr. George Snively. Wear and tear, the simple act of putting on and taking off helmets, damage the comfort pads and energy absorbing foam liner over time. Helmets with worn-out pads are at least one to two sizes larger than helmets in new condition. A poorly fitted helmet makes it more likely that the helmet will shift too much or even come off the head during a crash impact. For these reasons, Snell recommends replacing helmets after five years of normal use.”
Bell: Replace the helmet after three years
On the Bell FAQ site we find that: “Bell has a general recommendation of replacing your helmet every three (3) years.”
Fox, Fly, and O’neal: Replace the helmet after five years of use
These manufacturers do not provide helmet replacement guidelines on their websites. But if you call their customer support, they will recommend replacing your helmet after five years of use.
Why does the industry recommend that you replace a helmet after 3-5 years of use?
Now that you know what the manufacturers recommend, let’s have a closer look at why it can be a good idea to replace a helmet after 3 to 5 years of use.
Over time, the helmet will no longer fit properly
A helmet should fit snug onto your head for it to provide optimal protection. It should not move in relation to the head when you gently shake the head from side to side.
Over time the comfort padding wears, the EPS foam in the protective inner liner compresses and molds to shape your head, and the retention system loosens due to normal wear and tear.
Three to five years of normal use is typically how long it takes before a helmet that fits snug when new starts becoming loose on the rider’s head.
The rigid outer shell may deteriorate and get brittle over time
The outer shell serves multiple purposes; it maintains the helmet’s structural shape and acts as an impervious surface that takes out the brunt of an impact.
Today’s helmets are typically made of fiberglass, kevlar fiber, carbon fiber, or a combination of these materials. Some cheaper helmets use polycarbonate, which has shown to lose effectiveness when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun.
Petroleum-based products such as standard polycarbonate resin degrade and may get brittle when exposed to UV radiation.
Manufacturers add UV inhibitors to counteract this issue, but that does not leave the helmet invulnerable to UV rays.
Your helmet will last longer if you store it in a cool and dark place whenever it’s not in use.
Glues, resins, and adhesives can lose effectiveness or affect liner materials
Helmets are held together with a variety of glues, resins, and adhesives. Over time, some of these can negatively affect other liner materials.
According to Gib Brown, director of test development at Snell and the foundation’s West Coast lab manager, there have been cases where the glue used to put the liner into the shell has degraded the liner.
Some glues and adhesives dry out and get less effective after a few years.
Helmets typically improve as technology develops
Helmet technology gets improved and perfected continuously as technology envelopes further.
While it’s not like the technology used to make your now five years old helmet suddenly has become outdated, but the chances are that the materials used and the testing and manufacturing process have evolved one step further.
By replacing your helmet every five years, you make sure to take full advantage of the newest technologies.
The liability issue
A helmet is the single most crucial protective gear to use when riding an ATV or motocross bike. If you crash and the helmet fails, the consequences may be catastrophic.
Manufacturers know that a certain percentage of helmets will fail after a certain number of years. As the years go by, the number of failing helmets steadily increases.
Based on their experience, they know that the percentage of failing helmets after three to five years of normal use is still within the acceptable range.
If they had recommended a longer replacement interval, they would start running into serious liability issues if a failing helmet was involved in an accident where the rider gets injured.
Why is there no terminal expiration date on a helmet?
It’s not easy to set an exact expiration date on a helmet as it is with, for example, milk.
As long as the milk is stored in a fridge, the manufacturer can predict with high accuracy when it goes sour. And when the milk starts going bad, it will happen relatively fast.
The same does not apply with helmets. There are a lot more factors that may affect how fast the helmet becomes unsafe to use:
- How often the helmet is being used.
- How it is stored and how it is treated.
- How it is maintained.
- Exposure from the elements.
- Material self-degradation over time.
- Material degradation due to reactions between different material types.
- Material degradation due to contact with chemicals.
All of these factors make it almost impossible to predict an exact date where the helmet expires or is no longer safe to use.
The next best thing is for the manufacturers and certification organizations to provide general recommendations based on their experience, testing, and other available information.
The recommended replacement interval of three to five years does not necessarily fit all scenarios:
The daily rider or active racer who uses the helmet almost every day may need to replace it after only 2-3 years due to wear and tear.
Leaving the helmet exposed to the elements, treating it poorly, and not keeping it clean may also require replacing the helmet much sooner than five years.
On the other hand, you have riders that only use their helmet every other weekend, store it cool and dry between use, and generally treat it properly. Their helmet is likely safe to use for up to 7 years or more.
Ultimately, it is up to you to judge whether it is time to replace your helmet or if it will be safe for a couple of years.
It is not required to replace the helmet after five years. It is not even required to wear a helmet at all in some states. But it’s a good precaution.
Is it safe to use the helmet longer than three to five years?
Many riders have helmets that still look almost as new after five years of light use. It may feel wasteful to throw away a helmet that looks perfectly fine.
As mentioned above, the recommended three to five-year replacement rate is largely based on standard risk management.
The engineers at the manufacturer likely know at what rate the various materials in a helmet will deteriorate and how fast a helmet wears out with normal use. While they set the expiration date based on an acceptable fail-rate, this does not mean that all helmets suddenly become unsafe to use after five years.
Tests have shown that a helmet may last longer than five years
As of today, there are no studies that specifically test the life-expectancy of ATV and motocross helmets.
But most helmets are built on the same basic principles and with similar types of materials.
While not directly applicable, the results from tests performed on bicycle helmets and other types of helmets seem to support the theory that most helmets last longer than five years before material failure becomes an issue.
This study from 2016 tested how age affects the material properties of EPS liners in used bicycle helmets. The researchers extracted and tested foam cores from 63 used and unused helmets at an age range of two to twenty years.
The test concludes that EPS foam’s impact attenuation properties in field-used bicycle helmets do not degrade with age.
In May 2015, before the release of the study, one of the contributors to the study, Alyssa DeMarco, announced that “There is no justification for two to ten-year replacement recommendations based on impact performance.”
Helmets.org performed an extensive experiment where they tested how 20 products such as sunblock, insect repellant, gasoline, and others affect helmet materials in skate-style helmets.
A total of 16 doses of the product were applied at two to five-day intervals. After exposing the helmets to the various products, they were run through a range of tests, including a drop test.
The test found that gasoline, sunscreen, and products containing DEET did degrade the inner foam. If your helmet was exposed to hair products, sunscreen, or insect repellant, they recommend cleaning it after use.
Finally, the helmets were shipped to a leading, fully accredited test lab for drop testing. The results were surprising, as only the helmet exposed to gasoline failed the test. All of the other helmets still passed the CPSC bicycle helmet standard.
Similar data was published in May 2017in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering. The report includes the test result of crash testing 675 helmets, showing no significant impact performance change with age.
Takeaway: Do not store your helmet on top of the vent port on your gas tank or a gas can in the shed.
Finally, we found a reference to a test that removed core specimens of EPS foam removed from 20-year-old freezer walls. The core samples demonstrated no deterioration in the structural integrity or physical properties of the foam.
Most but not all helmets are still safe after 3 to 5 years of use
The test indicates that many helmets are likely perfectly safe to use for several more years. Crashes, high impact drops, and common wear and tear likely affect helmet life much more than helmet material deterioration due to old age or exposure from personal hygiene products.
But are you willing to take the gamble that yours is not one of those that will fail?
The cost per ride is relatively inexpensive if you divide a new helmet cost over five years.
We believe that the potential downsides of a bad helmet (brain injury or death) outweighs the dollar savings by far.
Does the five-year rule apply from the date of manufacture or from when you begin using it?
Ask ten different manufacturers, and you will get ten different answers to this question.
Some start counting from the day of manufacturing, some from the date of purchase, and other count years of use.
A good rule of thumb seems that a helmet that is appropriately stored can sit on the shelf for two years before the three to five years of use rule applies.
Do you need to replace a crashed helmet or one that was dropped if there are no visible signs of damage?
Helmets are designed to absorb as much energy as possible in a crash before this energy reaches and potentially damages your head.
In other words, they are designed to deform when they smash into something and will not recover.
After a crash, or after accidentally dropping the helmet from more than a couple of feet, the helmet may have deformed slightly from the impact. Sometimes there are visible cracks or other deformations in the shell or foam. Other times the damage is invisible to the naked eye.
Regardless of whether there is any visible damage, you should always throw away a helmet that’s been used in a crash or that has been dropped more than three feet.
Any damage will negatively affect the helmet’s ability to protect you in the event of a future crash. Its protective value is no longer as good as when the helmet was new.
Replace the helmet if it predates 2010
If your helmet is Snell certified and predates 2010, it is recommended that you replace it.
The Snell foundation updates its test criteria at five-year increments. For the SNELL 2010 rating, they made some critical changes.
Before 2010, the test criteria were more focused on high-speed accidents at 100mph+. This led to manufacturers producing helmets designed to be relatively stiff for optimal performance in high-speed impacts.
The problem was that a stiff helmet is not ideal in real life 30-40mph accidents.
The post-2010 test criteria were changed to better take into account the lower speed impacts. This means that helmets made after 2010 are a bit softer, leaving them better able to absorb impacts at normal speed crashes (30mph to 40mph).
Look for a tag on the inside of the helmet, indicating the date of production. All helmets made after 1974 should be tagged with the production date. The tag may be hidden behind the removable comfort padding.
Many manufacturers offers a safety inspection service
Most of the major helmet manufacturers offer a helmet safety inspection service, sometimes free of charge.
A professional will inspect and review the helmet’s condition and provide you with a recommendation on whether to replace it or if it is safe for a few more years.
Keep in mind that no inspection can give you a definite answer to whether your helmet is good or not because the user is the only one who knows how a helmet was treated.
The racing organizations may have specific requirements
Racing organizations often have specific regulations that dictate what helmets are accepted and not.
They typically require that the helmet you use is certified and that the testing standard used to certify the helmet is not too old. Most racing associations permit helmets with certifications dating back, usually 10 or 12 years.
Please refer to the guidelines of your specific racing organization to learn what rules apply.
Common misconceptions about helmet deterioration
Sweat does not damage helmets
It’s a long-lived misconception not backed by any evidence that the salts in sweat deteriorate EPS foam used in helmet liners.
According to helmets.org, sweat will not cause your helmet to degrade: “The standards do not permit manufacturers to make a helmet that degrades from sweat, and the EPS, EPP or EPU foam is remarkably unaffected by salt water.”
EPS is not only used in helmets but a wide range of other applications. In the building industry, they use EPS as insulation, where it must be able to withstand being submerged in salty water without deteriorating.
Some believe manufacturers are recommending short replacement intervals to sell more helmets
Some will claim that helmet manufacturers recommend replacing a helmet only to sell more helmets. While it is true that a manufacturer’s policy on helmet replacement can never be entirely objective, there can be good reasons to replace a helmet as soon as three to five years, as discussed in this post.
EPS is not biodegradable
It’s a common misconception that the EPS foam lining is biodegradable. According to Wikipedia and a range of other trustworthy sources is not.
EPS foam is proven to withstand sustained exposure to mold and moisture without any effect on its properties.
EPS foam does not harden or becomes less effective with age
It’s a common misconception that the EPS foam protective liner shrinks or hardens at a rate of about 2% each year. We have found no evidence to prove this claim.
EPS foam is subject to post-molding shrinkage, but this is accounted for in the protection process and decreases rapidly after the post-molding shrinkage phase of 11-18 weeks is over.
However, the foam does compress from putting the helmet on and taking it off your head, which makes it denser and potentially less effective in a crash.