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Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

Shopping cart full of helmets

A Buyer's Guide
to Bicycle Helmets

The Two Minute Summary

If you have six minutes, please read on!

Six Minutes More

Your brain is probably worth reading this!

Need One? Yes!!

The average careful bike rider may still crash about every 4,500 miles. Head injuries cause 75% of our nearly 700 annual bicycle deaths. Medical research shows that bike helmets reduce or prevent most of cyclists' head injuries. And helmets may be required by law in your area.

How Does a Helmet Work?

A helmet reduces the peak energy of a sharp impact. This requires a layer of stiff foam to cushion the blow. Most bicycle helmets use crushable expanded polystyrene (EPS), the picnic cooler foam. It works well, but when crushed it does not recover. Expanded polypropylene (EPP) foam does recover, but is much less common. Collapsible plastic liner materials recently appeared and offer promise. The spongy foam pads inside a helmet are for comfort and fit, not for impact protection.

The helmet must stay on your head even when you hit more than once--usually a car first, and then the road, or perhaps several trees on a mountainside. So it needs a strong strap and buckle. The helmet should sit level on your head and cover as much as possible. Above all, with the strap fastened you should not be able to get the helmet off your head by any combination of pulling or twisting. If it comes off or slips enough to leave large areas of your head unprotected, adjust the straps again or try another helmet. Keep the strap comfortably snug when riding. The straps hold your helmet on, not the rear stabilizer.

What Type do I Need?

Most bike helmets are made of EPS foam with a thin plastic shell. The shell helps the helmet skid easily on rough pavement to avoid jerking your neck. The shell also holds the foam together after the first impact. Some excellent helmets are made by molding foam in the shell rather than adding the shell later.

Beware of gimmicks. You want a smoothly rounded outer shell, with no sharp ribs or snag points. Excessive vents mean less foam contacting your head, and that could concentrate force on one point. "Aero" helmets are not noticeably faster, and in a crash the "tail" could snag or knock the helmet aside. Skinny straps are less comfortable. Dark helmets are hard for motorists to see. Rigid visors can snag or shatter in a fall. Helmet standards do not address these problems--it's up to you!


A sticker inside the helmet tells what standard it meets. Helmets made for the U.S. must meet the US Consumer Product Safety Commission standard, so look for a CPSC sticker. ASTM's F1447 standard is identical. Snell's B-95 standard is tougher but seldom used.

Fit is not certified by any standard, so test that on your own head. Visors are not tested for shattering or snagging in a fall, so you are on your own there.

Comfort Requirements

Coolness, ventilation, fit and sweat control are the most critical comfort needs. Air flow over the head determines coolness, and larger front vents provide better air flow. Most current helmets have adequate cooling for most riders. Sweat control can require a brow pad or separate sweatband. A snug fit with no pressure points ensures comfort and correct position on the head when you crash. Weight is not an issue with today's bicycle helmets.

Special Problems

Some head shapes require more fiddling with fitting pads and straps. Extra small heads may need thick fitting pads. Extra large heads require an XXL helmet. Ponytail ports can improve fit for those with long hair. Bald riders may want to avoid helmets with big top vents to prevent funny tan lines.

How to Buy

We always recommend checking out the latest Consumer Reports article, but they can't cover very many of the available brands and models, and their articles go out of date.

We have a review up on helmets for the current season. It has no impact ratings, but our limited testing has shown that most helmets have about the same impact protection regardless of price.

When you pick up a helmet, look first for a CPSC sticker inside and a smooth, well-rounded shell with a bright color outside. Put it on, adjust the pads and straps or the one-size-fits-all head ring, and then try hard to tear it off. Look for vents and sweat control. Helmets sell in bike shops from $30 up, or in discount stores for less. A good shop helps with fitting, and fit is important for safety. The $10 discount helmet can be equally protective if you take the time to fit it carefully, and for another $10 you get easier fitting. Helmets are cheap now, and are seldom on sale, so don't wait for a sale price. Many of us bought our helmets after a crash. You can be smarter than that.

Kids Helmets

Check out our pamphlet on child helmets.

When Must I Replace a Helmet?

Replace any helmet if you crash. Impact crushes some of the foam, although the damage may not be visible. Helmets work so well that you need to examine them for marks or dents to know if you hit. Most manufacturers recommend replacement after five years. We think that depends on usage, and many helmets given reasonable care are good for longer than that. But if your helmet was made before 1990, it's time to replace it. Replace the buckle if it cracks or a piece breaks off. No one requires you to replace your helmet, so give it some individual thought.

Bike Helmets for Skating?

The ASTM standard for biking includes inline skating. But extreme, trick, aggressive skating and skateboard helmets should meet ASTM F1492, tested with multiple hits and lesser impact severity. Those helmets may not handle bicycling impacts. Do not use a skate helmet for bicycling unless it has a CPSC sticker inside! The best skate helmets are dual-certified to F1492 and the CPSC bicycle helmet standard.

Warning! No Helmets on Playgrounds!

Warning: Children must remove helmets before climbing on playground equipment or trees, where a helmet can snag and choke them. Here is more information on that problem.

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

BHSI is the helmet advocacy program of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Our volunteers provide helmet information and work on the ASTM international helmet standard committee. In 1983 we published in Bicycling Magazine the first bicycle helmet article including actual lab test results (based on testing done for us by the Snell Foundation). We are funded by consumer donations of about $11,000 a year. We do not accept funds from manufacturers or anyone involved in helmet sales.

BHSI is located at 4611 Seventh Street South, Arlington, VA 22204-1419, tel. 703-486-0100. Our Web server where you found this page is at www.helmets.org. Our email address is info@helmets.org.

Our parent organization (WABA) is a local non-profit founded in 1972 to improve bicycling conditions in the Washington, DC area and encourage the use of bicycles for transportation. BHSI is an outgrowth of the WABA Helmet Committee that began ride testing helmets in 1974. WABA has a Web page at www.waba.org.

This pamphlet was produced with donations from those who read it earlier. We welcome your tax-deductible donation to make it available to the next rider or parent who will need it. Checks can be made payable to WABA/BHSI. Thanks!

Copyright 2015 by the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute
A program of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association

Illustrations by Nancy Olds

Links to this page are encouraged. We update frequently, so if you put this page on your own server it will be quickly outdated!

Available as a more compact pamphlet in Word or .pdf format. You can save the file, print it out in Word, another word processor or Adobe Acrobat reader and photocopy it for non-profit use. The Word file name is guide.doc and it was originally formatted for our HP Laserjet at 1200x1200 dpi. If it refuses to format correctly for your printer, contact us by email or at the postal address above and give us the postal mailing address where we can send you a paper copy to reproduce. We can't mail it on paper to your email address!

This page was revised or partially updated on: March 3, 2015. BHSI logo

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