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A friend of mine, who works as a sales manager in a good bike shop advised me to never buy a helmet that is older than couple of years, and the best thing to do is to buy the current model line, when they arrive to LBS (like fresh bread). Neither he earns from my purchases at his shop, nor he insisted to buy there, and even recommended me a few models that they don't have, so there is no marketing bias in this advise. So the question is, whether a helmet really looses its quality even if it's stored in a bike shop?

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Sounds like something for Mythbusters! –  l0b0 Jun 10 '13 at 15:37
    
It would be a poor quality helmet that needs to be discarded after even 5 years of storage. Kept wrapped (not exposed to sun or solvents or fumes, and not subjected to "shop wear"), a "new" helmet should be good for 10 years at least. (I frankly have no problem with using a non-lightweight helmet for 10 years, so long as it's taken care of and not subjected to impact. The 5-year replacement recommendation assumes that the helmet is subjected to mildly rough use.) –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 16 '13 at 2:16
    
I do not have the answer, but suggest this needs to be decided on science and not anecdotal evidence. I will say that in the world of rock climbing, it has been tested and proven that nylon kernmantle ropes dangerously degrade after 2-5 years even when protected from light, heat and air. Obviously, the more light, heat and air - UV rays - oxidation of the plastics - the faster the rope degrades. In bike helmets, we are talking basically styrofoam with a hard shell. Since when is styrofoam long-lived?! I admit to using a helmet probably far too long. But I suspect helmets are shorter lived that –  user7246 Jun 18 '13 at 16:48
    
@LCTexas Except that places like Snell know who butters their bread. –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 18 '13 at 17:11

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

A lot will depend on the construction of the helmet. For example the basic material in the helmet will be some sort of sponge or foam which relies on its texture to absorb sudden impacts; does this degrade over time? For example, a loaf of bread gets its texture from the tiny air bubbles formed while rising and proving, but if left to prove too long, the structure collapses, or, once baked, the bread will harden and not be as flexible.

So it might be with helmet foam; at least, that's the concern, in particular when subjected to sustained UV/sun light. It's certainly not been a concern that manufacturers have been quick to dispel.

But there is another side to this question, not just whether you should not buy an older helmet because it has lost its ability to do its job? Have the helmet construction methods moved on since that helmet was made, simply, are newer helmets better? Are they lighter, stronger, more absorbent, better value, more adjustable?

Many reputable organisations, e.g. the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, say not to worry

Most manufacturers now recommend that helmets be replaced after five years, but some of that may be just marketing. (Bell now recommends every three years, which seems to us too short. They base it partially on updating your helmet technology, but they have not been improving their helmets that much over three year periods, and we consider some of their helmets since the late 1990's to be a step backwards, so we would take that with a grain of salt.) Deterioration depends on usage, care, and abuse. But if you ride thousands of miles every year, five years may be a realistic estimate of helmet life. And helmets have actually been improving enough over time to make it a reasonable bet that you can find a better one than you did five years ago. It may fit better, look better, and in some cases may even be more protective.

The Snell foundation concurs:

Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal "wear and tear" all contribute to helmet degradation.

Although I would hesitate to buy a helmet which can't stand up to sweat, this suggests that it is use that affects the longevity of the item, not its storage.

I'm not a scientist in this area, but while there might be evolutionary reasons in the helmet's construction to merit buying newer ones, just being stored for a few years probably won't be reason enough.

But as I asked in an answer to a related question, why are you planning on wearing it? If you're looking for a cheap helmet because you don't really want to wear it, then an old one will be fine, but if you're genuinely concerned for your safety and you really want something to do the best job, then should you be quibbling over the few dollars/pounds/{currency units} difference?

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I ride trail - all-mountain a few times a week and want to buy AM helmet instead of my XC one (to be more confident on drops, rock gardens and a little downhill), so I doubt if I should invest time on chasing after the latest models. Anyway, thanks for a great answer! –  J-unior Jun 10 '13 at 9:22
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@J-unior Just so you're aware, you can get a decent AM helmet without spending Giro XAR / Troy Lee A1 / POC Trabec money. e.g. the Specialized Tactic or Giro Hex. –  Olly Hodgson Jun 10 '13 at 16:15
    
@J-unior sorry, I'm not familiar with the abbreviation - what's AM? –  Unsliced Jun 11 '13 at 8:46
    
All mountain. Anyway, I've opened a related question on subject - bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/16171/… –  J-unior Jun 11 '13 at 9:13

Buying a "fresh" helmet every couple years sounds a bit excessive. This is based on the personal experience of needing to replace couple helmets due to impacts. Both helmets were at least two years old. One was a direct hard head hit event during a race. The other was being hit by a car. This was back in the 80's. I'm assuming helmets are better today. The helmets did their job.

Multiple factors effecting helmet life. How many hours per year do you ride? Where? UV intensity, temps, environmental contaminants in the air? What degrading risk factors does your helmet get exposed to when not in use? Bottom line: Replace after any suspected impact & if you feel use and/or abuse has reduced the level of protection.

Regarding costs for helmets. More is not necessary better. Replacement helmet just purchased ended up costing ~45usd. Bell Muni. ~10oz, well ventilated, adequate air flow channels, removable visor, the ?tag fit systems is nice, just not a high style helmet used by any ProTour riders.

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