Updated: Feb 3, 2021
Buying a helmet might be one of the first steps you take once you’ve decided that you want to learn to ride a motorcycle and it’s definitely one of the most (if not the most) important bits of protective gear that you’ll need to purchase. Whilst a helmet isn’t going to prevent a crash, it certainly will protect your noggin’ from cracking like an egg in the event that you’re unexpectedly launched from your bike. Wearing a helmet also helps to protect you from the weather, dirt, bugs, constant wind blasting you in the face… you name it! Not forgetting to mention, in the UK you must wear a safety helmet that meets British safety standards when riding a motorcycle or moped on the road.
Choosing the right helmet for you is incredibly important and although it might be easy to make a decision just based on the colour or style you like there is a lot more to it that you need to consider. With literally thousands of helmets on the market it can be hard to know where to start, so in this post I’ll be breaking down everything you need to know to help you choose the perfect lid.
How Helmets Work
Before we dive into choosing your helmet, let’s take a minute to go over how helmets work. Helmets typically consist of an outer shell, an impact-absorbing liner, some comfort padding and a retention system. The outer shell is normally made of fibre-reinforced composites or thermoplastics (hardy stuff) which compresses if it hits the ground. Its job is to disperse the energy from an impact which then lessens the impact before it reaches your head. Next up there’s an impact-absorbing liner, normally made from thick expanded polystyrene which (as the name states) has the role of absorbing the shock of an impact.
Then you have the comfort padding, which are the soft squishy bits that sit against your face and head which make the helmet comfy and provide a snuggly fit. Most manufacturers sell replacement helmet pads in different sizes so if the padding in your helmet is a little too big/small you can change it out for a better fit. Lastly you have the retention system (A.K.A the chin strap); this is another vital part of the helmet. It’s the one piece that keeps the helmet on your head in the event of a crash. Every time you wear your helmet, you should fasten the strap securely.
In the UK, helmets need to meet the minimum safety requirements for the European standard ECE22.05 for use on the road. This is the basic European helmet standard that covers both the helmet and the visor. ECE22.05 approved helmets normally have a marking on them stating that they are approved to this standard, and this can usually be found on the chin strap. Most helmets also have a sticker with this information on which is usually stuck to the back of the helmet when you buy it.
If buying your helmet online the retailer should state in the item description if it is ECE approved. If you’re buying in store and you can’t see a sticker or any markings on the helmet just ask a member of staff to double check for you. Remember to think wisely when it comes to picking the colour of your helmet, it's a smart idea to go with a bright colour that other road users won't be able to miss. I would also steer clear of any gimmicky helmets (i.e. Predator from Alien vs Predator, helmets with Mohawks or cat ears etc.) as they usually don’t offer the best level of protection and can even inhibit your field of vision which isn’t cool.
I’d also recommend checking out the SHARP Helmet Safety Scheme, a free website that can help you to make an informed decision when buying a helmet. SHARP purchase helmets from consumer retailers which ensure that the helmets they test are exactly the same as what UK motorcyclists can buy. SHARP conduct all kinds of different tests, which aim to measure the protection they offer a potential riders brain in an impact at a variety of speeds, and against both flat surfaces and kerbs. They then rate the helmet from one to five stars - with five being the highest. Helmets don’t legally require a SHARP rating in the UK, but I think this is a great tool to use when whittling down your list of potential lids:
There’s one more thing I need to add here; never, and I mean never ever buy a second-hand helmet. Many people don’t realise that helmets are actually a single-use item, so if you’re ever in an accident and your helmet is in an impact you’ll need to replace it. If you even so much as drop your helmet from a small height you could cause internal damage to the impact absorbing liner which then compromises its level of protection.
So even if a second-hand helmet seems to have no visible damage to the other shell, it could still have internal damage and in turn won’t provide you with the level of protection you need. Yes, it might seem like a bargain but is it really worth saving a few quid when it comes protecting your precious melon? You might actually be surprised to find that some of the cheaper helmets have a 5 star SHARP rating (as well as being ECE approved), so a higher price doesn’t always mean better protection.
Finally just a little tip from me; please don’t leave your helmet in a stupid place! As tempting as it might be to pop it on the end of your handlebars for two seconds whilst you do something else if it falls off and you damage your lid you won’t be able to repair it and you’ll have to buy a new one. So put it on the ground if you have to! Many insurers offer additional helmet cover so perhaps consider this when taking out your motorcycle insurance.
When carrying your helmet around I recommend keeping it in the bag it came in but if that’s not to hand open the visor up and place your hand through the bottom of the helmet and out through the visor opening, you can then grip the portion of the helmet where your forehead would usually be and it won’t go anywhere.
Choosing Your Helmet
There are five main types of helmet on the market; I won’t go into loads of detail here as you can do a quick google search to find out more information on them but they are as follows:
(For reference I’ll be specifically talking about full-face helmets in this post but much of this advice can also be applied to the above list)
The number one factor you should consider when buying your helmet is the fit. Even the most expensive helmet with the best safety ratings will fail to protect you if it doesn’t fit your head properly. Now, this can also be one of the more tricky things to get right (much like finding a good pair of jeans) as everyone’s head is a slightly different shape and size.
To get started take a measurement around your head in centimetres, you should measure your head at its widest point using a cloth tape measure. Wrap the tape around your head above the ears, across the forehead and over the natural bump at the back of your head. It’s important to keep the tape measure level and make sure it feels firm but not too tight.
Next try to figure out the shape of your head, the easiest way to do this is to ask someone else to help you. Tilt your head down 90 degrees (so you’re looking at your toes) and get your trusty assistant to take a couple of pictures of the top of your head. If you can, use your phone and draw an outline on the photo around the outside of your head. Is it more circular or oval in shape, or somewhere in the middle?
Most helmets can be characterized as having either an ‘oval’, ‘intermediate oval’ or ‘round’ shape, and if you have a particular helmet in mind it might be worth checking out some of the reviews online as some helmets definitely seem to be better suited to certain head shapes than others. That being said, most helmets can be modified to fit your head by changing the cheek pads or inner liner, so don’t obsess over this too much.
How to Tell if a Helmet Fits
Once you’ve owned a couple of helmets you’ll be able to recognise pretty quickly if one fits you well. However starting out this is actually more difficult than you might predict. When I was looking to buy my first helmet I went out to a few motorcycle shops and tried on a bunch of different options, but I had my eyes set on a particular brand and model. Unfortunately they didn’t have the one I wanted in any of the stores I went to so I went online and ordered one, figuring that I could always return or exchange it if it was too big/small. When it finally arrived I had (let’s say) a few teething issues…
Firstly it felt way too small, to the point where I was too scared to pull it over my head for fear that it wouldn’t come off again and I’d end up having to call the fire brigade to come and saw it off. I’d bought a size medium (57 cm) and my head measures 56.5cm so I knew it should fit fine, but the opening of the helmet just seemed too tiny to get my head in. I decided to wait for my boyfriend to get home before putting it on so at least if I got my head stuck he could help.
It turns out I didn’t realise just how much I could stretch the opening of the helmet by pulling the chin straps apart to fit my noggin’ in and once I’d done that it was easy to put on. Now I know that this is actually normal, and in fact if you can just slide your helmet on without doing this it’s probably too big. (If you read the instructions that come with your helmet, they’ll likely say that this is how to you should put it on).
Secondly when I finally got the helmet on I realised that although it felt comfortable around the top of my head and wasn’t giving me a headache, the cheek pads were way too big. This meant that my face was being squished so much that I was continuously biting down onto the inside of my own cheeks which (as you can probably guess) wasn’t particularly nice. However this was an easy fix as I was able to order some smaller cheek pads online which were super simple to install, and voila! I now had a helmet that fit just right.
At least that’s what I thought until I recently purchased my second helmet. This time around I decided to spend a bit more money and opted for a more luxurious model from a very well-known brand, and it was definitely worth it. That’s not to say that cheap helmets are bad (in a lot of cases price doesn’t necessarily equal better protection as mentioned above) but it has some extra fancy features like a leather interior and an emergency quick release system that I didn’t get with my first helmet.
Although I’m still very happy with my first lid and will continue to wear it regularly the new one fits me much better and I find it a lot more comfortable. I didn’t have to make any adjustments to the inner lining or pads, and when I tried it on for the first time it felt like it was made for me. It’s also about 400 grams lighter than my first helmet (which you really notice once it’s on!) Plus the outer shell is a lot smaller which makes moving around with it on and carrying it much easier.
Some (but not all) of the more premium brands use different shell sizes, so a small helmet has a smaller outer shell than a medium helmet. Whereas many cheaper brands use the same outer shell sizes but with thicker or thinner padding inside to make the helmet differ in size. This is one of the reasons why my new helmet is so much smaller (and lighter) than my first and probably why it fits better.
Whatever helmet you buy and however much it costs, here are some general tips and tricks to ensure that it fits properly:
The cheek pads should touch your face without pressing uncomfortably. You should have ‘chipmunk' cheeks but still be able to talk without biting the inside of your mouth.
There shouldn’t be any gaps between your forehead and the brow pads.
If the helmet has a neck roll, it shouldn't push the helmet away from the back of your neck.
Press on the chin piece. The helmet or visor should not touch your nose or chin. If it does, it definitely will do when riding at speed from the wind pressure.
If you’re in between sizes (like me) always opt for the smaller size and then change out the inner padding if it’s too tight.
Your ears might fold over when you put the helmet on, but as long as you can push your ears back to their normal position and they don’t hurt, you’re good to go.
Now, with your helmet on and the straps fastened, move it from side to side and up and down with your hands. If it fits right, your skin should move with helmet (check to see if your eyebrows move if you aren’t sure). Remember that the helmet liner will also soften up a bit with use so your new helmet should be as tight as you can comfortably wear it. With the chin strap still securely fastened and your head straight, try to roll the helmet forward off your head. You shouldn't be able to pull it right off. If you can, the helmet is too big.
Now carefully take off your helmet. Does your head feel sore anywhere or are there any red spots on your forehead or neck? Pressure points can be really uncomfortable and cause headaches, so try to make sure your helmet isn't causing this. If it is, choose the next largest size or try a different brand of helmet. Ideally you need to try it on for at least 30 minutes to see if it’s comfortable, obviously that’s not always possible in a store so make sure you always keep your receipt when buying in case you realise once you get home that it’s not a good fit. This is an important (and often expensive) investment after all!
So there you have it, a brief guide that will hopefully help you to purchase your first helmet. There’s honestly so much to say about this subject and this post could probably go on forever, but just remember the most important thing here is your safety. With so many helmets available on the market today you really don’t need to sacrifice style for protection, so make sure you do your research and carefully consider all of your options before making a purchase.
Any questions, suggestions or concerns I would love to hear so please leave a comment below! And check back soon as I plan to dedicate a whole post to caring for your helmet.