The Motorcycle Helmet: Everything You Need to Know

The motorcycle helmet is arguably the most recognized type of gear associated with riding a motorcycle, and rightfully so. Whether you’re on a long trip across state lines on a touring motorcycle, or just out for a leisurely ride around town, the massive importance of wearing a motorcycle helmet cannot be stressed enough.

This simple piece of headgear has saved countless lives over the years, and the numbers back it up: For example, in 2015 alone, helmets saved an estimated 1,772 motorcyclist livesjust within the U.S. — and likely even more.

Wearing a motorcycle helmet shouldn’t be considered optional, and fortunately it’s not in the majority of states, which require that riders wear some type of helmet at all times. This is obviously for good reason.

Bottom line, if you own or ride a motorcycle, you need to own a helmet as well. Maybe even two or three.

So, if you’re new to riding, or just looking for some accurate information on motorcycle helmets, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading to find out why you need to wear one in the first place, the many types available, sizing, and much more.

Let’s start out with one more emphasis on why you need to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle and go from there, shall we?

The Importance of Wearing a Motorcycle Helmet

Not to sound like a nagging parent, but if you’re ever on a motorcycle, you need to wear a helmet at all times. This is true whether you’re going 5 MPH or 50 MPH.

Helmets save lives, period. Not only that, but they reduce the severity of practically all injuries associated with the head and face area, and usually allow most riders to emerge from accidents mostly unscathed from the neck up.

We get it; it’s a little tempting to picture yourself cruising around, helmet off, face out there for everyone to see. But, you’re risking a pretty big trade-off for doing so: your life.

Head injuries are a serious matter in any case, but if you’re riding a motorcycle, your risk is exponentially higher if you’re unprotected. Even a small wreck can cause you to eject from your bike, or cause impact to your head area.

To put it even more bluntly: If your head is exposed, you’re practically inviting serious injuries, permanent damage, or death. Every time you ride. No matter how fast, or how far you're going.

Even if you’re the most skilled rider/driver in the world, that person in the giant truck in the lane next to you is not, and may be seconds away from turning into your lane before you can even react. It happens literally every day. Why would you risk it?

To sum it up, even if your state doesn’t require a helmet, your life should.

Other Benefits of Motorcycle Helmets

Although wearing a helmet to protect yourself from injuries should already be motivation enough to use one, there are a number of other benefits that come along with them as well.

Protection From Weather

The number one thing to keep in mind when riding a motorcycle is the fact that you’re fully exposed to the elements, unlike being enclosed in a car. This obviously means you’re going to have to deal with weather, which can be a problem in many different ways.

Precipitation is certainly not a fun thing to deal with while riding, but a helmet can keep your head and face dry, even at high speeds. On sunny days, the helmet can protect your face and head from getting sunburnt — a fairly common issue for many riders, who don’t often don’t even realize there’s a problem until it’s too late.

Wear a helmet, and you won’t have to worry about any of these things.

Better Visibility to Other Drivers

One of the biggest causes for motorcycle wrecks is simply not being seen or noticed by other drivers. Wearing any type of motorcycle helmet can draw some added attention to yourself when on the road, and using helmets with reflective strips or bright color patterns will help even more — both day and night.

Decreased Wind Noise

Many who are new to riding aren’t aware of just how bad the wind noise can actually be, especially when on highways and other places where you can drive faster. The wind noise may not be that big of a deal at first, or when on shorter rides, but it can definitely wear on you over time.

Most motorcycle helmets are designed to be aerodynamic, which helps to drastically reduce the overall level of wind noise. This can help you enjoy your ride a lot more, and possibly prevent minor damage to your hearing as well.

Protection From Dirt, Bugs, and Debris

Another overlooked aspect to motorcycle riding is the huge amount of dirt, bugs, and debris you encounter when riding.

Think about it for a minute. Have you ever gone a long drive, and looked at the windshield of your bumper and windshield afterwards? You’re guaranteed to see plenty of bugs and other debris plastered to the car. Now imagine the same, but on your face.

While wearing clear lens glasses or sunglasses can help a little bit with this problem, it’s not enough. The same goes with finer particles like dust and dirt. Nobody wants their face coated in the stuff. There’s an easy solution, of course: wearing a helmet. Problem solved!

Better Vision

The many things you encounter in the open air on a motorcycle can hinder your vision, but so can things like the sun, and glare bouncing off of other cars and buildings as you ride. Many motorcycle helmets are equipped with visors and shields that offer a large amount of glare reduction.

These visors provide you with an overall improvement to your vision, which not only makes for a safer ride, but also a more comfortable one with less strain on your eyes in general.

Types of Motorcycle Helmets

Motorcycle helmets all serve the same primary purpose, but there are a ton of different types, typically classified by their design, which also involves the amount of coverage they provide for the face as well.

Full Face Motorcycle Helmets

Full face helmets are widely regarded as the safest type, and it’s easy to see why: They cover your whole head and face.

With a full face helmet, your head and face are surrounded by an outer shell, which fits over the chin area as well. This is very important, since many studies show that the chin absorbs 50% of severe impacts in the event of a wreck.

Plenty of padding is found on the inside, which keeps the helmet secure, along with providing an ample cushion to absorb impact as well. A chin bar is used to secure the helmet to your head,

The cutout for the eye area is very wide, so as to not obstruct your peripheral vision. A visor covers the eye area, which can typically be flipped up in an instant as needed. Man full face helmets will also come with an inner visor that sits in front of your eyes, and acts as a pair of sunglasses would.

Full face helmets also typically have an integrated ventilation system that removes heat buildup to decrease sweating and prevent fogging during colder weather.

Overall, the full face helmet is the most recommended due to its high level of safety, weather and debris protection, and range of vison, among other benefits.

Dome Motorcycle Helmet

Dome helmets, also known as a skull motorcycle helmet, are basically the most minimal form of helmet you can wear. The look very similar to the type of helmet a skateboarder would wear, but with a small bill on the front to help with wind aerodynamics.

Dome helmets only cover the top portion of the head, and stop just above the eyebrows. While these helmets do provide a more open air feel, they don’t offer a way to shield your face from dirt and debris, and will do nothing to protect most of your face in the event of an accident.

These are obviously better than not wearing a helmet at all, but they provide a minimal amount of protection, and are not recommended.

Open Face Motorcycle Helmet

Open face helmets, sometimes known as ¾ helmets, cover the top and sides of your head, while leaving the face area exposed. These helmets have a similar amount of protection to full face helmets in the areas where they provide coverage, but the chin and face are still at risk somewhat.

These helmets are lighter than full face versions, and do provide a better amount of airflow. Many models have full face visor shields as well, which helps to protect from weather and debris in the air. Open face helmets have a lot of variations in terms of design and protection, depending on the manufacturer.

Touring Motorcycle Helmets

Touring motorcycle helmets are a specialized version of full face helmets, and are intended to provide the maximum amount of protection, comfort, and functionality required for long rides that last for numerous hours at a time.

These helmets are known for having very soft padding, lots of ventilation, and advanced designs that help mitigate wind noise. They are also often equipped with external microphones for communication with other riders in the group, speakers for music, and an array of swappable visors for certain conditions.

Modular Motorcycle Helmets

Modular helmets are arguably a form of full face helmets, but the helmet itself is not one piece. With modular helmets, you still get full face coverage and a chin bar, but the lower portion can be quickly removed or raised up out of the way, exposing the lower portion of the face.

These features give riders an expanded range of versatility, and make it easy to talk, use a phone, eat food, or take a drink without the need to remove the entire helmet. This added level of convenience is a big part of why modular helmets continue to rise in popularity as technology and designs improve.

Off Road/Motocross Helmets

Off road helmets are ideal for motorcycle riding on dirt and stunt tracks. These provide full face coverage, but have bigger chin bars, and bigger visor, and a wider range of vision. These helmets don’t have face shields, so as to allow the rider to wear goggles or glasses of their choosing.

These helmets are lightweight, and intended to provide an expanded level of protection and coverage due to the higher likelihood of wrecks and wipe outs. They are not appropriate for road use, but are definitely the standard for any riding that involves knobby tires.

Dual Sport Motorcycle Helmets

Dual sport helmets offer a mix between off road and conventional full face helmets. As you’ve probably guessed, they are for riders who may use their motorcycle off road one minute, and then ride it on the road the next.

This results in a full face helmet with an expanded chin bar, with the option to flip the visor up to allow for the use of goggles, which many prefer for off road riding. These helmets offer a good amount of ventilation and noise reduction, but not on the level of standard full face helmets.

Other Helmet Types

  • Kids Motorcycle Helmets - Most kids helmets will be of the full face variety, for obvious reasons. Kids helmets offer the same level of protection, padding, and coverage as full face helmets, only in a much smaller size. These helmets also tend to have kid-friendly style patterns.
  • Womens Motorcycle Helmets - Womens motorcycle helmets are no different from men, except for a slight variance in sizing. Still, most women prefer to simply wear a standard sized helmet, and use the fit chart and guidelines as anyone else would.

Other Motorcycle Helmet Features and Accessories

Many of today’s motorcycle helmets are available with several added features. Some of these include motorcycle helmet Bluetooth systems that allow for hands-free phone use, music, and even communication between other nearby riders using Bluetooth motorcycle helmets.

Some other notable features include swappable visors that let riders match their visors to their surrounding conditions, removable/washable liners, and external microphones.

Motorcycle helmet locks are useful tools that allow you to lock your helmet to the bike when it’s parked, which prevents any would-be thieves from taking off with your helmet.

Anatomy of a Motorcycle Helmet

Outer Shell - The outer shell of the helmet is your first barrier of protection, and can be crafted from kevlar, carbon fiber, molded plastic, polycarbonate, or a combination. It absorbs the initial impact, and also prevents any penetration from foreign objects.

Impact Absorbing Layer - Often made from foam material and layers, the impact absorbing layer also works to take in impact, and displace the force throughout the helmet, which in turn protects your head. The foam absorbs the shock, while working to displace it evenly, rather than in one spot. This layer also works to prevent intrusion from foreign objects.

Comfort Padding - This is the part that actually touches your head and face when wearing the helmet. The comfort padding helps to keep the helmet snug and secured on your face, and the outer layer of the padding is usually designed to wick away moisturiser as well. This padding determines the actual fit of the helmet, and is usually removable so you can wash it and remove odors that have built up. The comfort padding layer also includes cheek pads on full face, open face, and modular helmets.

Retention System - Also known as a chin strap, the retention system is what’s used to secure the helmet to your head, and prevent it from flying off during an accident (or from wind.) Most straps use a double D-ring system to adjust tension, with a fastener that lets you clip the excess strap material to the other side of the strap. High-quality retention systems come with latches that can instantly clip the strap in for faster equipment and removal.

Face Shield - Sometimes referred to as visors, face shields are the portion of the helmet that protects the face from weather, dirt, debris, bugs, and any other foreign objects you may encounter in the open air. These can often be removed or swapped out for other shields more appropriate for certain weather conditions, such as sun, night time riding, and more.

Additional Face Protection - The bottom portion of the helmet offers added protection to the lower face area, while still allowing for airflow and breathability.

Motorcycle Helmet Safety Ratings

Motorcycle helmets rely on a number of different rating systems in order to be certified as safe.

In the U.S., the Department of Transportation (DOT) uses a proprietary rating system in order to determine that the helmet meets certain requirements. All new helmets sold in the U.S. must have DOT approval, and denote the approval on the back of the helmet.

Other rating systems include:

  • ECE22.05 - The U.N. Economic Commission for Europe sets a standard level of protection for helmets in Europe.
  • Snell (M2015) - A non-profit in the United States founded after the death of Pete Snell, a sports car racer who died from head injuries.

Helmets made in other countries may have their own safety ratings as well, such as in Australia and Japan.

While there is an ongoing debate on which rating system is truly best, DOT-approved helmets are the the legal standard, although Snell certification tends to have stricter requirements in most cases, and may indicate a safer helmet in some instances.

Regardless, each system rates helmets on their ability to absorb impact, resist penetration from outside objects, retention ability, and peripheral vision.

Motorcycle Helmet Sizing

Motorcycle helmet sizing is often the hardest part about finding the right helmet for you, and goes beyond just classifying helmets as small, medium, or large (although this is a good starting point.)

Helmets are typically measured in inches or centimeters around the forehead, at eh largest circumference area. To measures, wrap measuring tape around your head, just above where your eyebrows are, and record the amount.

Now refer to the chart below:

ADULT

INCHES

CM

XS

20.87 - 21.26 in.

53 - 54cm

S

21.65 - 22.05 in.

55 - 56cm

M

22.44 - 22.83 in.

57 - 58cm

L

23.23 - 23.62 in.

59 - 60cm

XL

24.02 - 24.41 in.

61 - 62cm

XXL

24.80 - 25.20 in.

63 - 64cm

XXXL

25.60 - 26.00 in.

65 - 66cm

If your head measurement size is between the numbers listed, try going with the smaller size first, and then wear it a few times around the house, allowing it to conform to your head.

After you’ve given it time to conform, check for the following:

  • Cheek pads should fit snugly on your cheeks, but without feeling like they are pressing into your face.
  • There should be no gaps between your temples and the helmet’s brow pads.
  • With full face helmets, the face shield should not be touching your face or chin.
  • You should be able to see comfortable to each side, with no vision obstructed.
  • After removing the helmet, there should be no soreness or lasting redness.
  • If the fit meets all these requirements, your helmet is the right fit.

Keep in mind that some manufacturers may use their own sizing chart in regards to what they define as small, medium, large, and so on. It’s always best to double-check their sizing charts when comparing your measurements to it.

Final Thoughts

We just one to stress this one final time: If you ride a motorcycle, you need a helmet. This is true if you’re just riding down the street to the gas station, or if you’re going on a longer ride through town.

The risk for an accident is always there, and the risk for injury is always present, no matter what speed you’re going, and no matter what your perceived skill level happens to be. Don’t risk it!

Are you in the market for a new helmet? Be sure to check out our motorcycle helmet buying guide, which highlights our top picks for motorcycle helmets in several different categories. There’s even some helpful buying advice to make sure you get the right one for your needs.

Stay safe, and enjoy the ride!