Legally, a helmet is the one piece of motorcycle kit you have to wear; it’s also arguably the most important thing you’ll buy.
Whether you’re looking to spend £40 or £400 (or even more), let us guide you through the dos and don’ts of buying a bike lid. We’ll have to touch on some safety issues, but if you’re new to riding, don’t be put off by the talk of crashing. Ride defensively, stay alert and you’ll have a lifetime of enjoyment aboard the very best form of transport…
Full face, open-face or flip-front… which should I buy?
First decide what type of helmet you want. While an open-face (one with no chin section) will be lovely and cool in the summer – and is the choice of many custom, trail and summer riders – they offer no protection if you hit your face in a crash.
Some open-face (or ‘jet’) lids like the Shoei J:O have a built-in visor, but you’ll generally need to consider a set of goggles; get ones for motorcycles that will protect your eyes from stones. Never ride without eye protection. Also remember that a stone flicked up by a car hitting you face (or teeth) can do some serious damage. And wasps really, really hurt.
Open face lids will have a ‘J’ on their label, which denotes they’re homologated (tested by a certified body) as an open-face.
A full-face lid completely encloses your head, and is marked with a ‘P’ (though be aware than some specialist lids have a mask that makes them look like a full-face, but only offer the safety of an open-face – these are marked ‘NP’ for Not Protective or as a Jet – ‘J’). Some people find a full-face a bit claustrophobic, and if you wear glasses, you’ll have to take them off before you put the lid on. And some petrol stations will ask you to remove it before you can fill up. But these are the most protective, and are what racers have to wear on track. They’re the most common design of bike helmet, and also give greater weather protection.
A flip-front helmet potentially offers the best of both worlds, with almost all the protection of a full-face, but the ease of putting on of an open-face. If it’s marked with just a ‘P’ on the label (usually on the strap), it can only legally be ridden in with the chin bar down. If it’s marked ‘P/J’ it’s dual-homologated as a full- or open-face lid, and you can ride with it how you like. The main difference is that the chin bar is certified to stay up – the original Shoei Neotec for instance was only tested as a full-face (though you’d often see emergency services riders with them open), while the new Neotec II is tested closed or open.
Most flip-fronts’ chin bars will cause drag when ridden with open, though the Shark Evo One and LS2 Valiant for instance have a chin-bar that goes all the way to the back of the helmet, causing less drag. They’re both dual-homologated too.
Adventure helmets usually have a peak and a visor. Many will be able to use goggles instead of a visor. A motocross lid is designed for use off road, and has a peak but no visor, being intended for use with goggles. These also tend to have more open ventilation, often with foam filters in the chin.
How much should I spend?
Ask many bikers this question, and the reply will likely be “How much is your head worth?”. You can spend as little as £30-40, or as much as £1000+, but remember that all helmets reach a minimum safety standard.
More expensive helmets will often have more expensive materials in their construction. The cheapest have a polycarbonate outer shell, which is fine, but it’s potentially more vulnerable to degradation (especially from petrol), and can’t be painted.
More expensive lids will have a composite shell, often using mixes of aramid fibres (like Kevlar), fibreglass, carbon fibre and other materials. These might be less prone to deformation, and more capable of spreading an impact. They can also be painted by a professional, if that’s your thing.
Higher costs often come with more outer shell sizes, which means there might be three shells used across the interior size range – if not, an XS lid will have to use an outer shell big enough to accommodate an XXL interior, making it look unwieldy.
You’ll also be paying for better quality interior materials, and potentially better ventilation. In my experience, you’re more likely to find a comfier, better-performing helmet in the higher price brackets, but there are plenty in the sub-£150 category that can be just as good a fit. It depends on your head shape, so always try any helmet on.
Remember that race-replica paint schemes are usually more expensive than generic graphics, which tend to be dearer than plain colours.
Is my helmet safe?
Your choice of lid will have a hard outer shell, with a deformable polystyrene inner. An impact’s load will be spread out across that shell, then the interior will compress to minimise the force transferred to your skull. In the very unlikely event that you do crash, if your helmet hits anything, it must be replaced. The general rule is also that if you drop your lid, it should be replaced, as you won’t be able to see the compression of the polystyrene just below the outer shell, or any cracks. If in doubt, get it inspected by your dealer.
Every new helmet sold in the UK must now be tested to ECE 22.06, formerly ECE 22.05. This involves abrasion, impact, penetration, deformation and retention testing, as well the field of view from the visor. This standard is accepted throughout Europe across 47 countries.
You might find your lid also has a ‘Snell’ marking – this testing is voluntary, and is often used by manufacturers in the development of helmets.
Another marking you might see is ‘DOT’, which is an American standard. This does not replace ECE in Europe and the UK – your helmet must also be tested to ECE 22.06, but it does mean you could legally wear it in the US too. DOT testing is carried out by the manufacturer, and one area it differs to ECE 22.06 is that a DOT helmet can transfer a lot more energy to the wearer’s head in a crash than an ECE lid can.
You might also find a gold ACU sticker – this is the governing body for motorcycle sport, and while no further testing is carried out, only helmets that have been submitted by the manufacturer and awarded this sticker can be used in racing. Off-road racing requires a silver ACU sticker. You should wear an ACU-approved helmet on public track days, though it’s unusual to see helmets in good condition being turned down for use, and with stickers easily bought, a scrutineer would need to have a very good knowledge of helmets to know if one hadn’t been approved by the ACU.
UK helmets used to carry a BSi kite mark, and while these are still legal, they’d be way too old to be safe. A helmet’s working life is typically five years – after this it should be replaced to ensure the polystyrene or outer shell hasn’t degraded to a point that could be unsafe in an accident. Check when a helmet was made – you’ll save money with previous colour schemes but be wary of anything that’s more than a couple of years old.
SHARP is a government-funded helmet safety scheme that carries out further tests on helmets. You won’t find every lid there, but it does feature a large proportion, with tests carried out that help to further indicate the safety of a lid.
Of course, no helmet can guarantee your safety in a crash, and there’s more to it than a simple rating. For instance, Arai swears by the shape of its helmets, which are designed to glance off an impact without causing drag, or twisting your head and neck. Theoretically, it’s also possible to design a helmet to be strong at the standardised points tested, but generally you’ll find that a decent lid from a quality brand should give good overall protection.
Finally, never buy a second-hand helmet; you have no idea what might have happened to it, how it’s been cared for, or how the interior has compressed to suit the previous owner’s head.
Getting the right fit
A correctly fitting helmet is not just about safety – if yours isn’t totally comfortable, it can mean the difference between loving motorcycling, and packing it all in.
You MUST try a helmet on properly before buying. Some online stores will allow you to return lids that still have their visor stickers on, but you can’t beat going into a shop and trying on a large range – try something from every manufacturer, and at first don’t look at the prices – just get a feel for how good different models can fit you. And please don’t try them on at your dealer then buy online – one day you’ll need your dealer.
You can measure the circumference of your head – just above the eyes – to work out what size you should be. Then start trying helmets on, keeping in mind that you might be a medium in one brand, but a small in another. And some brands use different shapes in their range – only half the Sharks fit me for instance; the other half are uncomfortable. The key thing is to try them on.
Open-face and flip-fronts are easy to get on, but the best way with a full-face is to pull the outside edges of the bottom apart as you slip it over your head, keeping the straps out of the way as you go. It might feel tight, but then your head should pop in.
Once on, you should feel even pressure all around your head, with no tight spots. Common problem areas are excessively squashed ears, and pressure around the brow area. I also found the new Schuberth full-faces press into the lower back of my head (yet the flips are fine).
Really do concentrate on feeling for pressure points, and don’t feel rushed. Once you’ve bought your lid, that tiny pressure in the shop can feel like a knife being dragged across your head after an hour’s riding. And then it’s too late to get a refund.
Try holding the helmet still while you move your head – if you can turn your head or tip it up and down to any significant degree, the lid’s too big or the wrong shape for you; a very large proportion of bikers own helmets that are too large for them. As the interior naturally compresses during use, those helmets will get noisier, less comfortable and less safe.
As the average head shape varies around the world, some manufacturers make different shaped lids for different regions; besides the fact you won’t have a warranty, it’s not recommended to buy a helmet from overseas.
Racier helmets often have tighter cheek pads to prevent the helmet twisting at high speed – some people find this uncomfortable, so ALWAYS try on any helmet properly before you buy it!
Finally, if you wear spectacles, you must try them on with the lid, as while many have cut-outs to take the glasses’ arms, some don’t; they can be uncomfortable and not allow your specs to sit properly on your face.
The best visors
A misted visor is annoying at best, downright dangerous at worst. Some lids are ‘Pinlock ready’ and some of those come with a Pinlock in the box. A Pinlock is a plastic panel with a silicone bead that attaches to a pair of pins fitted in the visor, which effectively gives you double glazing and – when properly seated – helps prevent / drastically reduce fogging. They need to be kept clean, and can be scratched if you’re not careful, but they’re extremely useful on the road. They’re also copied – look out for edge beads that are hard moulded plastic instead of silicone as these sometimes don’t seal as effectively.
Pinlocks are never supplied fitted as the helmets aren’t homologated for their use. They also reduce clarity slightly (not that you’d usually notice), hence them separately coming in the box.
Many cheaper lids don’t have a Pinlock – check before you buy your lid if one is available, and be prepared for an additional £20-£25, though some can cost as much as £35. You don’t have to use one – in summer it’s largely not an issue, and if you ride in winter you could use an anti-fog coating (like FogTech), or even washing-up liquid, though this is less effective.
Not all Pinlocks are the same – for a start, there’s ‘MaxVision’, which is a larger Pinlock that you’re less likely to see in your peripheral vision. There are also three different grades – 30, 70 and 120; the larger the number, the better they are at keeping the misting at bay. The double-glazing effect used to be achieved with a ‘Fog City’, which was a self-adhesive insert, though these are no longer available.
Another thing to be aware of with your visor is how easy it is to open and close, and whether you can crack it open a little to reduce fogging – this is important if you wear glasses, keeping in mind that many spectacles streak if you try to use an anti-fog coating.
Never use any form of solvent on your visor, or spray it with anything like furniture polish (the propellants are a problem) – a visor can quickly weaken and shatter if something hits it.
Check how easy it is to remove your visor – you want to be able to pop it off without tools ideally, so it can be easily cleaned.
Most manufacturers offer replacement visors if yours gets too scratched, but if you think you’re likely to need one during the lifetime of the helmet, check prices before buying – occasionally they can be staggeringly expensive.
Are helmets waterproof?
They should be, but there are some lids that leak – this typically occurs along the top edge of the visor seal, though some vents can occasionally allow water in, even when closed.
Look for the visor touching the seal all around, but if you do see water running down the inside, you can sometimes loosen the visor mounting plates and adjust them backwards for a tighter fit.
What’s the law on black visors? Do I need a sunshield?
Many helmets have a sunshield that slides down out of the front of the helmet. Except Arais – the Japanese company refuses to fit them as they believe it would compromise the safety of their design. Also, having one means the front of the helmet will be slightly further away from your brow, so when riding a sportsbike with your head low, they can reduce visibility. Racers will generally use a lid without one, opting instead for a separate black visor, which also reduces the number of layers of plastic in front of your eyes.
Your visor must carry a BSi kitemark or UNECE 22.06 to be legal. It should also transmit 70% or more light, which means dark tinted visors are illegal. Ultimately it comes down to the discretion of a police officer – in more than 20 years I’ve never had a problem, but I always carry a clear visor in my rucksack, or a pouch around my waist, and never use one unless it’s really sunny. Visors scratch very easily, so ensure they in a soft sleeve.
Sunshields can be extremely useful in low sunlight conditions, and when touring; because they’re easily slid away again, if it suddenly gets dark you won’t run into problems. Make sure that you test the sunshield – it shouldn’t touch your nose, but it needs to block out as much light as possible along its lower edge. It can be very distracting to have a bight line of light between the visor aperture and the bottom of the sunshield.
How do I know how good the ventilation will be?
Check inside the lid – generally, channels cut into the polystyrene can help air move around. Also look for holes to the vents as some manufacturers put extra decorative vents on their lids that don’t go anywhere.
Helmets designed for race use often have more powerful ventilation, but this can sometimes make them noisier. Though having said that, you should always wear earplugs with any helmet – once you realise the damage you’re doing without, it’s too late. A constant ringing is really irritating!
Ultimately, good ventilation is a combination of the vents and a visor that can be cracked a few millimetres open – keeping cool is vital to staying alert, so do check.
A removable interior is easier to keep clean, so particularly important for daily riders. Also look for a chin skirt and a good seal around your neck for warmth in winter, and less noise. Being able to remove the chin skirt will allow for more air to move around on hot days, or when riding behind a tall screen.
If you’re going to want to fit an intercom into your lid, check there’s space for speakers – some helmets have recesses, but others can push the speakers painfully into your ears when riding.
What type of fastener should I get?
Your helmet will either have a ‘double-D’ fastener, or a ‘micro-metric ratchet’. You can’t choose – it’ll depend on the model.
Double-D is the choice of racers and gives a very secure fit every time you put the lid on, with a really simple mechanism. But it’s hard to use if you have your gloves on.
Most touring lids have a micrometric ratchet – with this, you set the strap to the size you want at first, then it gives around an inch of adjustment every time you put the helmet on, which means you should still get a secure fit. Some people don’t like the fact that it depends on moving parts, but it’s a very secure and simple self-locking design, and a vast improvement on the old seat-belt buckle types that were set to one length only, so tended to work loose.
How should I look after my helmet?
Never leave your helmet on your bike’s tank, as the fuel vapour can damage the polystyrene liner. And don’t put it on the wing mirror, as that can dent the inside, and it’ll make it dirty. Stuffing your gloves inside is a no-no as well – not only do they add dirt, the Velcro fasteners will pull at the liner.
If you need to put your lid on the ground, lay your gloves flat, then stand your helmet on them.