Motorcycle helmets are an essential piece of gear, perhaps even the essential piece. You know what’s tough? Shopping for a lid. These days it can be a chore, due to the sheer number of models, sizes, features, and colorways. And if you’re new to two wheels, figuring out the right size, understanding safety certifications, or making sense of material specs can feel like learning a new language.
We’d like to help. Below you’ll find information on the different types of helmets available, some general rules of thumb when assessing fit and descriptions of materials commonly used.
Three main helmet types are available – full face, three-quarter (open face) and half. There are a few other options for the on-road rider, such as modular and dual sport, which we’ll also describe. Despite the differences in design, there are some common features present in all the types. Each helmet comes with a hard exterior shell along with a firm, expanded polystyrene (EPS) or similar impact-absorbing liner inside. To enhance comfort and fit, there’ll also be a padded liner inside the EPS layer, which oftentimes, can be removed for washing, replacing, or customizing fit. Finally, every helmet has some form of retention strap, which goes under the chin, and keeps the helmet securely attached to the rider’s head.
A full face helmet offers riders the greatest level of protection. As the name suggests, these helmets cover the entire head and face, thanks to the chinbar and face shield/visor. They also feature ventilation systems to provide airflow through the interior while riding.
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Open Face helmets don’t include the chinbar found on a full face helmet, but do offer protection to the sides and back of the head. There are options on the market that include face shields, but most leave the face, from the top of the brow down to the chin, exposed.
AGV RP60 Pro Open-Face Helmet
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Half helmets cover the top of the head only, with some designs extending slightly further down the back of the noggin. These helmets offer the least amount of protection in the event of a accident. There are many “novelty” half helmets on the market which have not passed impact safety standards.
Modular helmets give riders a choice, offering a person the best of both worlds. The chinbar can be locked downward, providing full face coverage. It can also be unlocked and flipped upward, providing an open face experience. Modular helmets are great option for someone looking for the around town convenience of a open face, with the comfort and safety of a full-face helmet during longer rides.
Many dual sport helmets have a full face design that pairs design aspects from the off-road and motocross realm, with that of street, and road touring. A fixed chin bar, along with a removable visor protects the rider’s eye port from the environment. Often this type of helmet is engineered to be used with a standard off-road goggle for improved ventilation during hot, or humid rides.
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Helmets are tested to a variety of safety specifications by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and/or the Snell Memorial Foundation (Snell) in the United States. There’s also an ECE measurement (Economic Commission for Europe) which is used by much of the rest of the world. Helmets that meet the requirements of these tests will feature a DOT, Snell or ECE sticker.
DOT (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218; FMVSS218)
This is the most common standard of testing in the States designed for helmets intended for on-road use, though many off road helmets comply to DOT standards as well. The thing to remember about DOT: Manufacturers aren’t required to submit samples directly to the government for testing before a product is released. Rather, a third party is contracted to conduct safety tests to ensure helmets are up to code after its available for sale.
For a helmet to keep its DOT sticker, it must protect a test headform (dummy head) through a variety impact and penetration tests. The retention system, and all its components, must withstand all loads imposed without breaking as well, and not move more than 2.5 cm from the original position.
DOT also measures things like field of vision and ensures there’s no rigid bits projecting off the exterior helmet that could catch something in the event of a crash.
Snell testing is optional for helmet manufacturers, but has the reputation of being more rigorous than DOT. Snell conducts impact, retention system and penetration tests similar to DOT, but also includes specific chinbar testing, positional stability (measuring rotation during impact) and flame resistance testing in some cases (racing specific helmets). After a helmet has passed a Snell test, the manufacturer cannot make any design changes. Snell will occasionally test random samples of previously approved helmets to ensure they conform to the original standard.
Manufacturers must pass Snell certification tests prior to earning the Snell sticker. The tests are conducted in-house at Snell’s American Association for Laboratory Accreditation-approved facility.
Safety standards are a quick way to make sure the helmet you are looking to buy will offer sufficient impact protection in the event of a crash. But proper fit is perhaps even more important, ensuring a helmet will perform up to task if an accident occurs.
This is one of the more difficult areas of choosing the correct helmet, because everyone’s head shape is different. Many manufacturers construct helmets for one of three head shapes: Long oval, intermediate oval, or round oval. Long oval seeks to accommodate those that are longer front-to-back than they are wide. Intermediate oval helmets are built for folks with less difference between length and width than those with long oval heads. Round oval helmets are constructed for riders with measurements close to the same in width and length.
Once you determine basic head shape, it’s time to get a measuring tape and wrap it around the largest part of the head, about one-inch above the eyebrow. Note the measurement and compare it to the sizing chart provided by the particular helmet manufacturer to determine your size. Take note though, sizes are often different brand to brand, and sometimes model to model, so always compare the numbers to the chart provided by each manufacturer.
Some helmets offer the ability to fine-tune fit via different internal padding thickness/densities. If this is the case, try a few options to see which feels best. After that, wear the helmet for a few minutes, even if you’re just sitting around the house, to determine if any areas of pressure are revealed. “Hot spots,” these points of pressure, can be annoying to downright painful, and signal that this helmet might not be the right choice.
Proper fit is snug, but not overly tight. You want to feel your head making contact with as much of the interior as possible as well, and the helmet should not flop from side to side, or up and down, when moving the neck. The top of the eye port will sit just above the eyebrows and you’ll want to take note of peripheral field of view to ensure it’s at a level you’re comfortable with. Try to slide a finger in between the helmet’s interior and your head, if you can, then the helmet is too big.
Materials and Components
Helmet exteriors are made of different combinations of fiberglass, carbon fiber, Kevlar, aramid and other similar lightweight, durable materials. As price increases, often the complexity of the combination of materials used increases as well.
Many manufacturers will use different EPS densities inside the helmet as well, to help disperse impact forces more effectively than a single density EPS liner.
Comfort padding sometimes features moisture-wicking material to help keep your face cool and dry. Some helmets also feature anti-microbial elements as well, helping to reduce odor.
Many helmets come with anti-fogging treatment on the visor, but some also include a Pinlock system. A Pinlock visor is a double lens-compatible system, which functions similarly to a dual-pane window. When installed, the Pinlock creates an air buffer between the two lenses that helps eliminate fogging. Breath deflectors (small molded rubber pieces which are installed at the bottom of the eye port) help direct exhaled breath away from the visor and reduce fogging. Chin curtains are often included too.
While every helmet features some type of ventilation system, those on the pricier end typically come with more vents or a more elaborate ventilation design to help force air efficiently from front-to-back through the lid. Many helmets also feature adjustable vent intakes to account for variable weather conditions.
Chin curtains are small pieces of fabric installed just below the chinbar. They help dampen road noise and protect against debris or bugs from flying up into the front of the helmet. They also reduce air turbulence inside the faceshield and are especially helpful during rides in hot, dry weather.
It’s important to be visible on the road. So consider some of the more wild colors, graphics and designs to increase your presence on the road. Many companies also offer high-viz options or reflective elements.
Many helmets also come prepared for communications systems or headphones. If either of these is a concern it can help trim down the selection.
If this is your first helmet, take time to consider the types of riding you plan to do. If you have lots of high-speed freeway miles in your future, a more aerodynamic full-face option will be preferable to a dual sport helmet with a non-aerodynamically-friendly visor that catches in the wind.
The general rule of thumb is to replace a helmet every five years, even if it hasn’t been dropped, or damaged in an accident. Material degradation can impact the protective ability of the lid. It’s not advisable to wear a helmet after a crash, even after a minor get-off, because the structure of the helmet can be compromised beyond what your eye can see. Some helmet manufactures, including Shoei, allow customers to send a damaged helmet to its offices for inspection in an effort to determine if the helmet is still useable.
The correct motorcycle helmet will feel like an extension of your body, so take some time to find the right fit and a design you like. It’ll be worth it!