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My neighbor is moving cross country and selling all his bike stuff. His helmet's a white Bell, about 15 years old. It's a bit scuffed but generally in pretty good condition. The only thing that worries me is some of the styrofoam is cracking off, but it shouldn't be hard to glue or remove and stuff a sock in the hole. And the right side is a bit deformed inward from storage (he says) but it bends back when on my head. But the straps are fine and it buckles great, plus it still looks stylish after all these years. He's selling it for $10, which sounds like a steal. Should I snag it for cheap or splurge on a new one?

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    Generally an old helmet should be good, but the condition you describe, even in a week-old helmet, makes it highly suspect at best. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 1 '17 at 20:10
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    Styrofoam cracking off and deformation is not 'gently used'. – Argenti Apparatus Dec 1 '17 at 21:15
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    Concussions and brain damage for only $10? That's a steal! – Eric Duminil Dec 2 '17 at 10:38
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    You wouldn't buy a 'carefully' used toothbrush. Helmets are safety items and should not be resold. You'll never know their true history! – Carel Dec 2 '17 at 13:18
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    I bought a brand new helmet at Costco for $15. I wouldn't call $10 a steal. – Kenneth K. Dec 3 '17 at 18:02

11 Answers 11

92

No. It is safety gear – buy a new one.

The old helmet might make a good pot for a hanging plant but it is more likely to fail dramatically in your moment of need.

The straps would probably come right with a soak in water, but the polystychrene is the functional part and it has failed with age.

It might fill a legal requirement if your location mandates helmet wearing, but it probably won't provide sufficient protection.

50

The problems you describe absolutely disqualify it from being used (as a bike helmet).

I would not use a 15 year old helmet in any case, even if it did not exhibit any evidence of damage.

39

It's worthless.

The many issues you cite would be reason enough to trash a 5 minute old helmet.

Many manufacturers also put expiration dates on their helmets, claiming the foam gets too hard or soft or some such and it can't do its job. While that very well might just be a cash grab, it might not be, and so that coupled with the fact that it isn't in pristine conditions means you should not trust it whatsoever.

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    Generally speaking, what is the lifetime of a helmet? – Carl Dec 2 '17 at 3:45
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    @Carl Depends what type and how well you store it. But a rule of thumb is not to trust anything over 10 years unless you know more about the characteristics of the helmet. Another method to measure lifetime is how often you fell with them. Helmets are single use, don't fall twice with them. The latter applies to motorbike helmets as well, though the former usually not so much. – Mast Dec 2 '17 at 8:52
  • @Carl For what it's worth, infant car seats are made of the same material and have a hard expiration of 6 years (per the manufacturer). – Ivan Dec 5 '17 at 22:23
33

The helmet you've been offered sounds like it's in terrible condition. Frankly, any fifteen-year-old helmet has probably degraded far enough that it's not going to protect you properly, but this one is clear junk. It's not "gently used": it's wrecked.

However, it's condition is largely irrelevant. Don't buy any second-hand helmet. It's as simple as that. A helmet that's been in any kind of significant impact needs to be thrown away and replaced: you just don't know what has happened to somebody else's helmet, as you weren't there to see it.

Should I snag it for cheap or splurge on a new one?

If you believe a helmet is a worth using, buying a new one isn't "splurging". If you don't believe a helmet is worthwhile, why bother at all?

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    "Don't buy any second-hand helmet." +1 – njzk2 Dec 2 '17 at 23:13
20
  • Bike helmets are a one-use item- the foam crushes to absorb the impact, and then is useless after.
  • Because of this, most helmet manufacturers recommend replacing helmets once ever 3 years, due to a combination of crushing from day-to-day usage (all those times you crammed it into a backpack or had it slightly bounce off a wall while walking with it), and from the foam breaking down on it's own (some airborne solvents, say from cleaning fluids or car batteries) will actually cause helmets to degrade).

I used to ride a motorcycle, and because of the one-and-done nature of helmets, many riders were so strict as to say if you dropped your helmet once from a table to a concrete floor, it should be replaced. Their argument was basically that your brain is important, and worth protecting.

18

I put some "scuffs" on my spare helmet the other day. It's a couple of years old, and I'm not that careful with my gear, but despite being clipped to the outside of a backpack on a train floor every day it looked no more than grubby.

How did it get scuffed? It was on my head bouncing on the tarmac as I slid across the road when I came off the bike. Nearly all the damage is to the removable brim, but a tiny bit is to the plastic shell. I no longer have a spare helmet.

Lightly-used and scuffs are at odds with each other. There are very few people I would trust to sell me second-hand safety gear, and the only reason I would buy a helmet off any of them is if they snapped up a bargain and found it didn't fit them well enough.

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    Glad to hear it wasn't your head that got lightly scuffed. I hear the market for second-hand heads is even worse than the one for helmets. – David Richerby Dec 4 '17 at 13:52
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    @DavidRicherby given the bruises/road rash on my knee and shoulder so am I (nothing serious) – Chris H Dec 4 '17 at 15:04
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Helmets have advanced a lot in the last 15 years. Safety reasons aside from the helmet falling apart (which is more than enough reason not to buy it) modern helmets are night and day more comfortable to wear.

Not worth it.

6

Years ago, Shoei used to run ads for their motorcycle helmets: "Do you need a helmet this good? Depends what you're going to put in it."

'Nuff said. Get a new one.

4

In general, replace your helmet every five years.If a helmet is getting loose or some of the inner foam or lining coming out then it’s time to throw it away, whether it has reached the five years or not.

I will not use a 15 year old helmet if someone gives it for free also. It is a matter of life and death and to be on the safer side buy a brand new helmet. You should not regret buying the old helmet later.

As the technology is advancing all the time and a new helmet is going to provide you a lot more protection and comfort than a 15 year old helmet.

2

Helmets have a life expectancy of about 3-4 years, you will see if you buy a new one a date on a sticker inside the helmet, this is to let you know when your Helmet was produced and when it should be replaced. Generally, 4 years unless it sees you through a crash.

I dont support the whole idea of expensive helmets because if they do their job right they are one and done. 4 Years is the use by date.

  • 1
    Essentially, you're saying that expensive helmets are pointless because cheap helmets work just as well in a crash. Safety standards should indeed mean that cheap helmets work just as well in a crash, but that doesn't mean that expensive helmets are pointless. The difference between expensive helmets and cheap ones is in how well they work when you're not in a crash. If you're lucky, that's 100% of the time you're wearing it; if you're unlucky, it's still all but a few seconds. If you don't want to pay for that, that's fine, but it's wrong to suggest that you get nothing for the extra money. – David Richerby Dec 6 '17 at 15:28
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    Have you a citation or reference for 4 years? Ideally from somewhere like a testing accreditor or somewhere that doesn't sell helmets. – Criggie Dec 6 '17 at 21:53
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    @Criggie Do the testing accreditation include a lifetime? I can easily imagine a world where the accreditor says "The helmet must be able to protect a watermelon from having a hammer dropped on it from X height" (I simplify slightly ;-) ) and the manufacturer says, "This helmet gives that protection today and we've found that it still does after Y years of simulated ageing." – David Richerby Dec 7 '17 at 11:01
  • @DavidRicherby Good point - I doubt it. To be tested, maker submits dozens of the same model and they get smashed around. To have an age component they'd have to test units that are X years old too and extrapolate from the data, otherwise its all guesses and estimates. "HALT" testing might be useful - 2 years "lifetime" can be duplicated in a weekend. – Criggie Dec 7 '17 at 19:49
2

Despite the commonly held belief in the other comments, a recent study of helmets made between 1987 to 2013 showed that helmets don't actually "go bad" if left on a shelf for a long time.

Our goal was to determine if the impact attenuation properties of bicycle helmet foam changed with age. Based on our tests of foam cores extracted from ten matched sets of 63 helmets between 2 and 20 yrs old, age does not affect the dynamic mechanical properties of the EPS foam liners used in bicycle helmets. As a result, we reject our hypothesis that age affects the impact attenuation properties of the EPS liners used in bicycle helmets. Based solely on impact attenuation properties, we find no support for replacing a bicycle helmet every 2 or more years as suggested by some manufacturers.

Source: http://biomechanical.asmedigitalcollection.asme.org/article.aspx?articleid=2497744

So do a careful inspect and as long as you don't see any visible damage on the helmet, you can go ahead and use it. However, if there is "styrofoam cracking off" as you say then you should probably just toss it.

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    I'm far from convinced the study supports your conclusion. It says nothing about how this helmet was treated before the OP first saw it (though we have reason to think it wasn't treated well). From what you've quoted it also says nothing about improvements in helmet design/materials over that time period or even degradation of the shell. On that last point in not even convinced they support their own conclusion as they don't back up their assumption that only the foam is essential to the impact protection. – Chris H May 14 at 16:25
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    Stands to reason that a helmet treated well lasts longer. Manufacturers have a lot of reasons to say a helmet only lasts a few years. Liability obviously - any helmet has to withstand reasonable (ab)use for a decent period, and there's the obvious vested interest in getting you to buy another helmet sooner. Leaving it out in the sun for years isn't the same as being years old. – Andrew Henle May 14 at 16:28
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    I share @ChrisH ’s scepticism; you say that if the helmet does not show any visible damage to go ahead and use it, but the OP states the foam is cracking off and the right side is deformed inward. That would be visible damage. It feels like you are answering a different question. Maybe you found the study and are trying to find a question to fit it, but for me this is not that question. – Swifty May 14 at 16:57
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    @Swifty I think this answer addresses the assumption that "old = bad". EPS isn't radioactive - it doesn't decay just by existing. "[F]oam is cracking off and the right side is deformed inward" isn't an age problem, it's an abuse problem. – Andrew Henle May 15 at 9:38
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    Since most other answers also mention helmets expiring this really has a place here. It is besides the point that the OP probably trolled us here, since it is a good question on used helmets. This question answers this underlying question. As @Andrew Henle mentioned, abuse and age may be considered in their own right. – gschenk May 15 at 13:12

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