10 Things To Know About Your Motorcycle Helmet
For most people in the United States, April is the time of the year where we’re getting excited for warmer temperatures and more time on two wheels. April is also National “Check Your Helmet” Month, a time where riders are encouraged to go over one of the most protective and important pieces of riding gear, making sure it’s ready for the season ahead: their motorcycle helmet!
I still remember buying my first motorcycle helmet over ten years ago. Had I known even half of the things that I’m about to dive into with you, I probably would’ve worn that helmet much more. My poor buying choices actually deterred me from wearing a helmet for many years, because I was so uncomfortable every time I put it on. It was heavy, hot, had poor peripheral vision, and was easily a size too big for me.
Luckily for you and me, I’ve learned alot about riding gear and motorcycle helmets since that first helmet purchase. Whether you’re looking to buy your first helmet, replace your current one, or just want to get some additional insight on motorcycle helmets, this blog should leave you with more of an understanding about your helmet of choice than when you came here.
While I always encourage people to purchase Bell Helmets, and I truly believe that they make a quality product for motorcyclists and beyond, this blog is not actually sponsored by them. So, any promotions you see throughout this blog are truly organic, and the thoughts and opinions on these helmets are my own.
1. There are Four Primary Styles of Helmets
There are four general styles of motorcycle helmets, each providing different levels of protection: Half, Three-Quarter, Modular, and Full Face.
A half helmet, commonly known as a brain bucket or skull cap, provides minimal protection. They typically cover just enough of your head for it to be considered a “cap,” making them significantly lack impact resistance. Everyone has their own opinion on these helmets, and the choice is yours to make. As someone who has fitted hundreds of riders over the years for a helmet, this is easily the last style of helmet I’d recommend anyone to wear.
Three Quarter Helmets
A three quarter helmet, also known as an open face helmet, is the middle ground between a half and full face helmet. This style covers the top, sides, and back of your head. The non existent chin bar is the most obvious factor in safety differences, but a face shield should also be considered. Basic three-quarter styles typically come with the ability to attach a snap on face shield, or to utilize impact resistant goggles or eyewear. Premium versions offer additional features such as flip up face shields, internal drop-down visors, and adjustable ventilation systems.
Modular helmets teeter between three-quarters and full faces, since they are essentially one in the same. The chin bar on a modular flips up with the click of a button, allowing for easy snack consumption, breath of fresh air (don’t ride with it up, though) or discussion with a friend. Your favorite boys in blue typically wear this style of helmet so they can let you know how fast you were going, according to their radar gun. Since the flip-up mechanism changes the structural integrity of the helmet, it is technically less safe than a standard full face helmet. However, this style is still a step above a three quarter or halfie.
Full Face Helmets
Full faces are (obviously) going to be your premium motorcycle helmet. They offer all the protection discussed above, but with a structurally sound chin bar. And, since a high percentage of motorcycle crashes impact the chin area, it’s probably a safe bet that you’ll want to protect those pearly whites you (or your Mom) paid a lot of money to make straight. While a full face helmet is the most ideal style of helmet to wear if you are wanting the most protection, there are still different levels of safety to consider, which we will discuss next!
2. There are Different Helmets for Different Uses
Within these four categories of motorcycle helmets, are even more categories of helmets! Are you off roading? Touring? Racing? Your riding style will play a major role in what type of helmet you’re going to purchase. Prime example: you won’t be wearing your cruiser-style 3/4 helmet to a track day, on or off road. Some full face helmets don’t offer built in visors, due to the fact that they’re meant to be worn with goggles on a dirt track or off road area. Other styles provide built in shields with tear off capabilities, in addition to improved aerodynamic functionality for high speed, hunched positioning for sport riding. Additionally, dual sport helmets typically come with a removable visor and high-ventilation system, making it a more versatile helmet…basically mirroring the functionality of the machine that is meant to be ridden both on and off-road.
Was that confusing? We can always break this down to the bare basics: where you live or intend to ride, will greatly determine what style of helmet you’re going to want to wear. If it’s raining or cold, you’ll want a full face with features such as a face shield and closeable vents. Is it hot where you live? Perhaps a three quarter or full face with superior ventilation will be best. Going on a road trip? Maybe you’ll want a nicer helmet for those long days on the open road. I prefer to wear my Race Star in the winter months and on road trips, due to the fact I can close the vents, and my Eliminator helmet in the summer months and around town when open vents and constant breezes to the face are more welcomed.
3. DOT vs SNELL: the Basic Differences
In the United States, DOT and SNELL certifications are the most common ratings you’ll see on a helmet. In Europe, you’ll see ECE, and the rating name will continue to vary internationally. Novelty helmets won’t have any of these certification stickers, because they haven’t been tested (or passed) minimal safety requirements. Both DOT and SNELL test for impact, penetration, chin strap retention, and peripheral vision requirements. So, what makes them different?
DOT certified helmets are the base level safety standard, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Any state that imposes a helmet law will require you to wear a helmet that, at minimum, meets DOT safety standards.
SNELL is a not-for-profit organization that has been rigorously testing helmet safety since the 1950s. Due to the foundation’s history within motorsport racing, most people view SNELL as the “superior” helmet rating. The foundation updates their certification standards every five years, have more rigorous standards to meet than DOT, and dive a little further into their testing requirements than DOT. You can view SNELL’s 2020 Standards, here.
Which one should you choose? That’s up to you. I personally like to think that I am going with a better helmet that is SNELL certified in addition to DOT. Both are better than nothing. And, both are better than one that isn’t certified at all!
My Race Star has been my helmet of choice for the past four years and is DOT and SNELL approved. You can read my full review of the helmet, here.
4. Proper Fitment is Important
Being fitted for a helmet is exceptionally important. You don’t want your helmet to be too tight, or too loose. A tight fitting helmet will put too much pressure on your head and cause headaches. A loose helmet will catch wind and lift while you’re riding, causing vibrations and additional wind noise in the helmet. It may also come off in the event of a crash.
Helmet sizes typically change every 1/4” or 1-2 centimeters, so it’s important that you get fitted correctly. Make sure to measure your head at its largest circumference, check manufacturer’s size charts, and if possible, try the helmet on prior to purchasing to ensure you’re fitted correctly.
A proper fitting helmet should rest about an inch above your eyebrows and have a snug fit. Meaning, it shouldn’t roll in any direction on your head when force is applied. You should be able to lightly place your hands on each side of the helmet and roll your helmet back and forth or up and down, and your skin should move with the helmet. If your helmet is the only thing moving, it’s not the right fit.
If you’re teetering between two different sizes, I typically recommend to size down, since padding will usually break in. (Another reason to buy a nice helmet: the padding tends to break in significantly less, making your helmet stay more true to size.) An easy way to check and see which helmet will fit best, is to leave the helmet on for 10-15 minutes at the dealer you’re purchasing it from. If the smaller size doesn’t give you a headache or cause any uncomfortable sensations, you have a winner!
5. Motorcycle Helmets Have Different Shell Shapes for Different Head Shapes.
Our craniums are not all shaped the same. There are three categories of head shapes in regards to helmet fitment: Round Oval, Long Oval, and Intermediate Oval. You’ll be able to determine your head shape by having someone look down on your head from the top. Most people fall in the Intermediate Oval category, but not all. Want to know what head shape the helmet you’re interested in is made for? You should be able to find the information in the product specs. (Bell’s helmets are made for intermediate ovals.)
6. Your Motorcycle Helmet Has an Expiration Date
Most helmets should be replaced every five years. There are a few ways to find your motorcycle helmet’s manufacture date:
- Some helmets have it printed on a tag inside the liner
- Sometimes, there is a circular sticker inside or near the DOT certification sticker of the helmet. The number in the middle is the year in which the helmet was manufactured. The outside number should have a punched out number, indicating the month in which it was manufactured.
If you wear your helmet often, you may be wanting to replace your lid sooner rather than later. Buyer Beware: if you see a “good deal” on a helmet in store, be sure to check the manufacture date. Sometimes, helmets sit at a dealer for years before they’re purchased.
Additionally, your hygiene routine can impact your helmet life
From road grime, sweat, bodily oils, hair products, and makeup, the liners tend to take quite the hygienic beating. Yes, you’re literally shoving your face into an oil and dirt filled padded compartment. Good hygiene is pretty neat, y’all. Make sure you take care of your skin, hair, and more importantly… your helmet! The more often you properly clean it, the longer it will last.
7. Face Shields: Color Options, Cleaning, and Replacement
Many helmets offer built in or attachable face shields, that often come with replacement options:
- Clear Shields: This is probably what your helmet came with. You’ll be able to use this at night and during the day, but you’ll probably want sunglasses for day use if your helmet doesn’t offer a drop down visor.
- Smoke tinted Shields: Smoked shields typically come in light and dark smoke, and usually, an iridium option is available. These shields are great for day use, however, riding at night with a smoked face shield will greatly reduce your visibility and is not recommended.
- Color tinted Shields: You’ll most likely see yellow and orange/amber tinted shields, and sometimes a light blue. Yellow and Amber shields make the world a bright, vibrant place, both day and night. You’ll often see people wearing yellow tinted glasses as well for this exact purpose.
- Transition Shields: The mother of all face shields! These shields do exactly as the name suggests: they transition from a clear shield to a smoked shield with UV exposure. I prefer to wear Bell’s ProTint transition shield on my Race Star helmet so that I don’t need to carry an extra shield around, sunglasses, or “clears” for night time use.
Being able to see out of your shield should be a top priority. To clean your visor, use a microfiber cloth to avoid scratching the shield. I use alcohol-based glass cleaner to remove bug guts and other residues. Yes, if you must, you can use the dirty squeegee and water at the gas station. I don’t think I know someone who hasn’t done that in a pinch, honestly. Once your visor has visible scratches, dings, or other blemishes that affect your ability to see clearly through it, it’s time to replace it. You can view all of Bell’s Shield Replacement Offerings, here!
8. You Should Be Cleaning or Replacing your Helmet Liners
One major benefit to purchasing a higher-end helmet (usually) is the ability to remove, clean, and/or replace your helmet liners and cheek pads. My Race Star has fully removable cheek pads and liners, so when it’s time for a new set, it only takes a minute or two to have a fresh helmet! Between replacements, I’ll take my cheek pads and liners out and hand wash them with petroleum free soap to remove any makeup, bodily oils, or road grime that’s built up on them.
9. Check your EPS
All of those oils that seep out of your head and into your liner? Well, they’re significantly speeding up the natural breakdown process of one of the most important parts of your helmet: the EPS system. The EPS (Expanded PolyStyrene) is the foam portion of your helmet that takes the beating (and hopefully prevents any brain injury) in the event of a crash. Even if your helmet has been sitting on a shelf most of its life, the EPS system will still naturally break down over time. If its flaking, cracked, or just appears to have seen better days, it’s probably time to replace your helmet.
10. Dropping Your Helmet is No Bueno, Homie.
Motorcycle helmets are meant for one time use in the event of a crash…and that includes a solid drop. Sure, dropping your helmet a foot off the ground versus it falling off your handlebars and smacking into the pavement are two very different things…and they’re definitely different than a cranial impact at highway speed. But remember, this is your brain, and the whole point of wearing a helmet is to protect it. So, if you drop your lid, replace it!
Whether it’s National Check Your Helmet Month or not, your Brain is important! Without it, you wouldn’t be able to ride. So take care of it by wearing proper fitting riding gear, taking care of your motorcycle helmet, and replacing it when necessary.