Everything You Need to Know About Buying a Motorcycle Helmet

March 12, 2014


You should never ride a motorcycle without a helmet, but with a wide variety of lids on the market, it can be an endeavor finding a starting point. We'll walk you through the different shell shapes and features, letting the clutch out in your ride to find that perfect motorcycle helmet.

The problem with having more helmets and features to choose from than ever before is that the choice is that much more complicated. With retail prices ranging from under $100 to over $800, there’s a quality helmet for just about any budget. This is our helmet buyers guide and it’s intended to help you make an educated decision on which helmet is right for you. There are several helmet coverage configurations to choose from, most of which are tailored to the needs of a specific riding style. There are some basic terms that are used to describe different types of helmets including open face and half-helmets (you may also hear these called three quarter or full-coverage), full-face and modular configurations. There are a few new styles on the market today that cater to the growing dual-sport or adventure touring riders as well as snowmobile-specific and dirt bike helmets on the market, all of which are designed to fit the unique needs of off-road riders. All helmets must meet DOT standards as a minimum but that is not the only standard you should be aware of. Most manufacturers meet or exceed DOT, SNELL, ANSI and BSI standards, many of which are recognized globally but not all of which satisfy DOT requirements here in the USA.

Helmet Diagram

Helmets 101:

Every helmet design consists of a hard exterior commonly referred to as the shell, which surrounds some type of foam liner that offers the impact protection. A soft fabric liner and cheek pads are used to make sure the helmet fits correctly and is comfortable. Helmets have a way to secure them to the rider’s head, usually by a strap that uses a D-ring closure system to allow you to tighten it across your neck. We will go into more detail on each of these details in the rest of this guide but you should have a general idea of what parts make up a helmet.

Types of Helmets: Open face helmets cover primarily the crown of the head and offer varying degrees of coverage down the back of the head depending on the design. Half-helmets are popular among cruiser riders but are also a favorite for scooter riders and those who prefer to have the wind in their face when they ride. Here are some of the benefits and concerns with this style of helmet. The trade-off for wearing a helmet that provides less crash coverage is that the open face styles are lighter at the 2-lbs. range and are generally considered cooler when riding in warm weather than a full-face version. Open face three-quarter helmets cover further down the back of the head and also over the ears, but still leaves the rider’s face unprotected from the elements or debris. Generally, open face helmets offer an unobstructed field of vision but they also require the rider to wear eye protection like sunglasses or goggles. Some open face helmet designs offer some type of face shield that provides eye protection while retaining the open face look and feel. The reduced crash protection associated with an open face helmet is a risk many riders are willing to pay in order to meet state and local helmet law requirements. Even though an open face helmet might not offer the same level of protection as a full face helmet they are a great compromise for the rider looking for a little insurance against injury in the case of a crash.

Popular Open Face Helmets:

Full face and modular helmets provide the more complete head coverage which extends down the backside of the helmet, around the riders face with an eye port with some type of flip-open face shield that is manually operated. The trade-off for increased protection is generally a little more weight with a high end full face tipping the scales at 3-1/2 lbs., to just over 4 lbs. for a modular design. The full face helmet requires the rider to look through the eye port which will have a face shield that can be open or closed with one hand. There is also a cost increase associated with the full face design helmet but it offers the benefit of increased protection from the elements and debris.

Popular Full Face Helmets:

In cold weather the full face helmet provides the best reprieve from the elements but in warm weather environments the complaint is usually centered on a lack of ventilation. Any good helmet will offer some type of vent system but some are better than others. Helmet manufacturers go through great effort to offer much better ventilation than helmets from even a decade ago but it is still about the only complaint about the full face designs besides having to remove your helmet completely in order to be comfortable while pumping gas, looking through your bags or stopping for a drink or snack.

That’s where the modular helmets come into play with their flip-up front area that allows riders to move the entire front area of the helmet up and away, thus reveling their face to the world while the main body of the helmet remains buckled in place. The modular helmets offer a measure of convenience that comes with a little extra weight since they typically weigh in just over 4-lbs. and a little extra cost associated with the more complex design.

Popular Modular Helmets:

The Shell: Exterior shell materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber, combinations of both and other state of the art polymer materials have allowed most full face helmets to weigh in at that 3-1/2 lb. range. Concerns about heat and fresh air circulation are addressed through unique cooling vents that each helmet manufacturer will design into their helmets. Modular helmets are full-face helmets that allow the chin bar to be unlocked and swung up out of the way when necessary.

The exterior shell of a helmet can be made of a range of materials—polycarbonate, fiberglass, carbon fiber, carbon/Kevlar composites and combinations of these are available. As you can imagine, helmets can be manufactured in many different ways and they are all required to meet certain safety certifications, to ensure that they provide the minimum level of protection. If a helmet has multiple certifications that is an indication that the manufacturer has gone the extra mile to meet other standards, as well. So, with impact protection being about equal at the baseline, it is important to choose helmets that meet both DOT and SNELL rating standards at the very least.

The next factor in shell selection is usually weight. Most full face helmets weigh in around 3 and ½-lbs. but the ultra-lightweight Carbon fiber shells typically save a half pound compared to other materials, but they also tend to be more costly. For some riders, that light weight is worth every extra penny.

Exterior finishes, colors, graphics are the fun part—just about any type of color or graphic you can imagine is probably out there waiting for you. From basic matte black to high gloss MotoGP racer replica graphics, the choice is yours. If you are considering getting a basic solid color with the intention of painting your own design, be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendations on which paint to use or if it is safe to do so at all. Exposure to any solvents or solvent-based substances, even some insect repellents and gasoline fumes can damage the finish of some helmets.

Motorcycle Helmet EPS Foam and Liners

EPS Foam & Liners: Just inboard of the shell is the heart of the helmet—the impact-absorbing layer or layers. Most helmets use EPS or expanded polystyrene which is, in essence the helmet’s crumple zone. These impact absorbing materials are designed to be compressed and crushed in an impact. The shell of the helmet may fracture which also dissipates energy from the impact before it reaches your head. As a result, a crash helmet is pretty much destroyed by doing its job and that’s why a helmet that has been in a crash should be always replaced.

The interior treatment and comfort lining is really important because that’s where helmet and head come together. Helmets with a removable interior liner allow it to be washed or replaced which will make sure the interior is kept fresh. Helmets that see a lot of use can get smelling gross inside, so a removable liner is a nice option to have. If the liner is not removable, then be prepared to wipe it clean once in a while to try to keep it clean for as long as possible. The use of new-age interior materials can enhance comfort by wicking perspiration away and in some cases can even be antibacterial in nature.

Liners and padding are integral pieces to any helmet and the arrangement of the padding inside the shell is critical to how well the internal ventilation system works. Additionally, the interior can even be designed to assist with safety in the aftermath of a crash. Some of the modern helmet interiors may include quick-release cheek pieces that can be pulled out from the bottom of the helmet while it is still on the rider in an effort to allow easier removal of the helmet by emergency personnel.

Motorcycle Helmet Fitment Chart

A Perfect Fit: No matter which coverage configuration you go with, the helmet must fit properly. Follow the manufacturer’s fitting guidelines to get the right size—and when you put it on, be sure to check the fit with a couple of simple tests. The crown of your head should fit all the way up into the helmet with the cheek pads fitting around your face snugly. Test for proper fit by grabbing the face bar of the full face helmet of the sides cover your ears with a ¾-face, then twist the helmet side to side laterally a few inches to see how tight the fit is. A properly fitting helmet should not be able to turn side to side freely when your head doesn’t. It should not be able to slip-off or get loose if you push the helmet forward from the back when the chin strap is secured either. The fit should be a little snug—but not too tight. We know it may seem silly, but leave the helmet on for a few minutes and really get a feel for how it fits. Most helmet manufacturers offer multiple shell sizes, even different shell shapes and optional cheek pads in multiple sizes to allow you to customize the fit.

Helmet Ventilation: Strategically placed vents allow fresh air into the face area and along the crown, sides and back of the helmet. Most full-face and modular helmets are equipped with closable vents fore and aft, though some may have a shutter on only the intake side. Opening the vents may slightly increase interior wind noise, but it usually isn’t a problem unless it causes a wind “whistle” sound;that can be annoying. Wind noise and buffeting can be a problem in some circumstances;helmets that have been wind tunnel tested tend to be less prone to having wind noise problems and less likely to be buffeted by highway speeds. Helmets equipped with a chin curtain and side and rear neck rolls help minimize wind noise. It is recommended that riders wear ear plugs in an effort to reduce potential hearing damage from extended exposure to the din of the wind.

Motorcycle Helmet Chin Strap

Strap It On: The retention system is critical to safety;if the helmet doesn’t stay in place in an impact, its effectiveness will be reduced. Certified helmets have had their retention system tested for effectiveness and strength so it should come as no surprise that you should never ride with the helmet straps left unfastened—all bets are off on impact protection under those circumstances. Most helmets have a double D-ring retention closure system, some have a quick release buckle. Whichever your helmet has it must be closed and properly adjusted to assure maximum helmet effectiveness.

Motorcycle Shields

Shields: Most full face and modular designed helmets have clear shields that can manually open and shut at the rider’s discretion. Most shields are removable so that you can add tinted shields or replacements if they are damaged in the process of daily wear and tear. There are some special shield features you might want to consider such as photochromatic (light sensitive) shields that darken by themselves in bright light. Some helmets even have a rear view feature or LED lights and cavities in the interior for communications gear. Replacing the shields is often a pain in the butt so make sure to keep the helmet owner’s manual somewhere safe just in case you need some help during the process.

The bane of helmet face shields has long been fogging, so you might want to consider shields with fog-resistant coatings or a Pinlock® ready fog-resistant shield. There are a lot of shield options available in terms of tints, coatings and even heated shields for snowmobile helmets. If you consider buying other shields for your lid, make sure the hinge and attachment arrangement is compatible with your helmet, because they are not all the same.

Safety Ratings: 101

There are several sets of standards that may apply to a given helmet, depending on where the helmet is to be sold and it isn’t uncommon for some helmets to be certified as having met more than one set of standards. The manufacturer can build the helmet to meet other standards as well, but to be sold in the U.S. for use on the road, DOT certification (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218 or FMVSS 218) is the minimum required. When they do, they can display the familiar “DOT” certification label. But the label must also conform to federal specifications that changed in May 2013. The DOT label must be displayed on the back of the helmet and must now include, in order from top to bottom:

  • The manufacturer’s name
  • Model number or name
  • “DOT” below the manufacturer’s name
  • “FMVSS 218” centered below DOT
  • The word “Certified” below FMVSS 218

For more information on these ratings, go to: http://www.nhtsa.gov/Safety/Motorcycles

A helmet must meet ECE 22.05 standards if it will be sold in the European Union and the British Commonwealth, including Canada, and in a total of 47 countries. ECE stands for Economic Community of Europe and 22.05 is the designation of the safety standard.

Many helmets also display the “Snell” label, which signifies the helmet has also met the standards set by the Snell Memorial Foundation. Snell certification is strictly voluntary, but quite a number of manufacturers achieve it and some competition sanctioning bodies may require it if you plan to race or take part in track days. Helmets meeting the most recent Snell standards will display M2010 on a label inside the helmet.There is another certification you should be aware of that tends to get much less discussion;indeed a lot of riders are not even aware of it, that’s the certification that applies to the face shield or eye shield that may be included with your helmet or you may consider buying separately. The federal standard that applies is called the Vehicle Equipment Safety Commission Standard 8, VESC 8 or sometimes shown on approved shields and lenses as simply “V8.”

If the shield meets the standard, it should have “Meets VESC 8” or “V8” indicated up in the corner near the hinge. To meet the standard, the shield must pass tests on clarity, light transmittance, lack of optical distortion, impact and even flame resistance. Eye protection is absolutely critical, so even if your state or province doesn’t have specific requirements about wearing eye protection, don’t ride without it. Be sure whatever you wear affords clear, unobstructed view and is shatter proof or impact resistant.

Motorcyle Helmet State Laws

Helmet Laws

Since you’re checking into how to buy a helmet, we’ll assume you feel wearing one is a good idea, but in some states it is not just a good idea;it is required by law. In those states, going without a helmet on a hot day could result in a fine. Also, some states that may not require helmets for some riders do require helmets for those same riders under certain circumstances—when they still have a temporary or “learners permit” for example—or their passengers may be required to wear a helmet, even if the driver is not required to wear one, so be sure to check into the laws about helmet use in your state. Since helmet laws vary from state-to-state, one good resource to help sort it out is provided by the American Motorcyclist Association online at: http://www.americanmotorcyclist.com/Rights/State-Laws.aspx

Buying Used

For some of us out there, buying a used helmet may come to mind. As a general rule, it is better to use a new helmet so that you know what condition it is in and the peace of mind that comes with knowing you have a helmet that can protect your head. Even if the inner liner padding has been cleaned or replaced to make it look and feel new inside, it may conceal internal damage to the EPS (expanded polystyrene) or other impact-absorbing material inside the shell from a prior crash impact. If there has been an impact of enough energy to compress the impact liner, the effectiveness of the helmet may be substantially reduced. Some plastic or composite exterior shells can take quite a hit without showing much visible damage, certainly something a fresh coat of paint or polishing could not conceal. A used, painted helmet can make it very difficult to identify whether or not it has been damaged. An external shell with concealed damage may not absorb energy the way it should and if that happens, the energy is transmitted to the rider. Most helmet manufacturers also advise that as the impact absorbing material inside the helmet ages over time, its physical characteristics may also change, making it less able to absorb impact. In general, when a helmet reaches five years, it may be wise to consider replacement. Check with your helmet manufacturer to be sure of the longevity of your particular helmet design.

Back to Top