Updated July 2019
Cycling is not a dangerous activity. Per hour, you are more likely to suffer an injury requiring medical attention while gardening; per mile, you are more likely to be killed while walking. Nevertheless, if you fall off your bike and hit your head you can do some nasty damage. Helmets are designed to limit that damage.
Do You Have to Wear a Bicycle Helmet?
You don't legally have to wear a bike helmet and the consensus generally is that it’s the responsibility of the cyclist to choose whether to wear one or not. Forcing people to wear helmets has been shown to discourage people from getting on their bikes, and can we afford to put up barriers to cycling?
For the sake of public health and the environment, we need to encourage as many people to get on their bikes as possible, and forcing people to wear helmets doesn’t help in that goal. But if the worst happens and a car pulls out in front of you or you slip on a wet road, wouldn't you rather have one on?
Modern bicycle helmets are lightweight and incredibly comfortable to wear. They won’t overheat your head either because they’re designed with air channels to bring in a constant stream of cool air as you cycle – you'll barely know you've got one on. Plus, there's no VAT on bike helmets these days, so they're pretty cheap too.
What Are Bicycle Helmets Made From?
Cycling helmets are made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), which absorbs impacts by crumpling. That's fixed to a plastic outer shell. For cheaper helmets, the shell is made separately from the EPS and is stuck on afterwards. For more expensive helmets, the EPS is sprayed into the shell in the mould ('in-mould construction'), which produces a lighter and sturdier helmet with more options when it comes to vents.
Most bicycle helmets use a ribbed design with numerous big vents. Helmets for commuters increasingly use a 'skate-style' design. Partly that's fashion, but the fuller outer shell provides more head coverage and resists day-to-day wear-and-tear better. Reduced ventilation is rarely an issue for moderate-paced commuting.
To be sold in the UK – indeed, anywhere in the EU - a helmet must pass the relevant safety standard: EN1078. To pass this, helmets are strapped onto a dummy head and dropped onto a variety of anvil shapes, the impact speed corresponding to a fall from your bicycle at around 12-13mph. A helmet might also pass other standards. Most are comparable, although the independent Snell B90 and B95 standards are more stringent.
Within a given standard, one helmet is unlikely to offer significantly better protection than another. A more expensive helmet will probably be lighter, better ventilated, more comfortable, more stylish, or have features the cheaper helmet doesn't. But the cheaper helmet is probably just as tough.
Choosing a Bicycle Helmet that Fits and is Effective
To be effective, road bike helmets must fit and be properly adjusted and positioned. The brim should be no more than a couple of fingers’ width above your eyebrows, so it’s just visible in the very top of your vision. The straps should be snug but not tight. The Y of the straps should meet under each earlobe, and you should be able to get one or two fingers under the buckled chinstrap. It can take a while to adjust the straps until they’re just right. Take that time.
Bear in mind that many bicycle helmets come in two or three different sizes. (Women-specific helmets are generally just smaller, as men have larger heads on average). Some helmets also fit some head shapes better than others, so it's important to try before you buy
Most helmets have pads inside for comfort (removable for washing), and an internal cradle that can be adjusted at the back with ratchets or a dial. Some use a simple elastic strap. Whichever it is, the helmet should be stable on your head. Undo the chinstrap and see if it stays put if you shake your head or touch your toes.
When Should You Replace a Bicycle Helmet?
Helmets have a lifespan of around five years, after which they should be replaced. They should also be replaced after any serious knock, as cracks or crushing in the EPS could stop it working effectively next time. Some helmets come with a crash replacement policy.
Types of Bike Helmets
Most bicycle helmets are designed for one of three groups: mountain bikers (with helmet peak), road cyclists (without peak), and BMX or dirt-jump riders (skate style). You can use any of these for commuting.
While these helmets can also be worn for commuting, there's a growing market in commuter helmets, where practical features and design take priority over the light weight and ventilation sought by sportier cyclists.
A helmet peak will help keep sun and rain from your eyes but is a fashion faux pas for some roadies, while skate-style helmets offer more head coverage and less ventilation. Choose a helmet that fits, is comfortable, and that you like the look of.
Here are some of the many helmets available.
Bontrager Women's Solstice
You can get a perfectly good helmet for less than £30, as Bontrager's Solstice proves. The in-mould construction keeps the weight down – just 260g in the smaller size – and it has a removable visor. The rear strap can be adjusted with one hand, while the chin strap has flip-open dividers to make it easy to get the straps snug under your ears. There's a crash replacement policy for the first year, so you can get a free helmet if you damage this one. It comes in two sizes: small/medium (50-57cm) and medium/large (55-61cm). The men's version is essentially the same.
Cyclescheme Price: £21.32
Apex City Helmet
While there are ten vents in the Apex City Helmet, it's warmer than average so suits commuters who ride at a steadier pace more than those who sprint for the traffic lights. That's an asset in cool weather, of course, and it doesn't look as strange as a race lid if it's worn with normal office clothes. A fixed peak helps keep the sun and rain off, and there's a rotary dial at the back to adjust the strap there. Construction is in-mould and that and the low-profile design keep the weight down to 260g for the medium size (54-58cm). It's also available in large (58-62cm), and in yellow or white.
Cyclescheme Price: £28.42
Endura Luminite helmet
Like Endura's Luminite jackets and other gear, this helmet is emblazoned with reflective details. It also comes with an integrated and USB-rechargeable LED rear light that fits to the top of the helmet. The rear strap has a dial for one-handed adjustment, and you can set the strap at three different heights to best fit the back of your head. The chin strap has the usual adjustments. There's a three-year crash replacement policy: you get 50% off the price of a new helmet if you crash-damage your existing helmet. Sizes: S/M (51-56cm), M/L (55-59cm), L/XL (58-63cm). Colours: black, green, or yellow.
Cyclescheme Price: £35.54
It's suitable for recreational riding as well but the Muni is aimed at city riders. That's why it has abundant reflective details. The removable visor has mounts for a Blackburn Flea front light and for Bell's Flip Mirror, which folds away when not being used. (Both items are available separately.) The small loop at the buck is meant for a Blackburn Flea rear light but would fit other small LED lights. Like the Endura helmet, the Muni's rear strap can be adjusted vertically as well as tightened and loosened. The chin strap has a ratcheting buckle that makes it easy to get a snug fit there. Sizes: S/M (50-57cm) and M/L (54-61cm). Colours black, white/silver, titanium, green, yellow.
Cyclescheme Price: £35.54
Another low-profile helmet aimed squarely at urban cyclists, the Sutton's EPS protection is moulded in to the extensive outer shell. There are eight vents, but like the Apex City this best suits easier-paced commuting in normal clothes. Three of the vents are reinforced so you can lock the helmet to your bike without damaging it. Subtle reflective details add nighttime conspicuity and there's a clip for a rear light. A soft leather visor sits just above your eyes; you can remove this if you prefer. Sizes: S (51-55cm), M (55-59cm), L (59-63cm). Colours: lots, including black, red, green, olive and navy.
Cyclescheme Price: £49.75
*=based on minimum savings of 25% inc End of Hire - many save more. Check your personal savings here.
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