Plastics in helmets are not likely to harm you
Summary: There is growing evidence that ingredients in some plastics may be harmful. Helmets are largely made of plastics, but the good news is that most of the plastics used are probably safe. There may be concerns about the plastic in polycarbonate shells, but they are not in contact with your skin while you ride. We think that the benefits of helmet protection far outweigh any risk from the materials. We have not dumped our own polycarbonate-shell helmets yet, but our polycarbonate water bottles are being reused for other things.
Some of our most-used plastics have ingredients that may be harmful. The witch hunt is on. Here is what we understand so far.
ShellsMost helmets have a plastic shell, EPS foam liner, nylon or polyethelene straps and a plastic buckle. The good news is that the EPS foam that makes up the thick inside layer is apparently inert and has not been identified as a problem.
Helmet shells may be made of the type of plastic now suspected of leaching out the chemical BPA. High-end helmet shells are often made from polycarbonate (GE's Lexan for example). It has been associated with high quality helmets for more than 20 years, particularly those that are molded in the shell. Polycarbonate is used for its high strength and because it does not melt in the hot mold. If you paid more than $40 for your helmet and it has big big vents, it probably has a polycarbonate shell. Often the manufacturer's label identifies the plastic in the shell. Even if your helmet does have a polycarbonate shell, the amount of exposure to BPA would have to be miniscule compared to the large amounts of polycarbonate in your eyeglasses, your car, your computer equipment, your watch, your tv set, your CD's, your hearing aids, your pens, your plastic utensils and your other sports equipment. If polycarbonate is really a problem, the cleanup will be massive, and you will hear a lot more about it soon.
There are other shell materials, some of them not yet found to be sources of unsafe chemicals. Many of the cheaper helmets found in discount stores are made with PET shells, the same material found in milk jugs, fruit juice containers and more. Helmets made with PET shells will typically have smaller vents, because the lower strength shell material does not permit opening up larger vents and still maintaining the required level of impact protection. Hard shell helmets may have ABS plastic or fiberglass shells. We don't think those have been implicated as possible sources of problems.
Bear in mind that the shell does not have much contact with your skin under normal conditions. You are probably still using CD's and handling them by the edges although they are known sources of BPA.
Straps and Inside MaterialsIt seems to us that the most important plastic in your helmet is the part that is in contact with your sweating skin while you ride. If chemicals were going to leach out and be absorbed, they would come from the layer you contact for hours with sweat as the leaching agent. That includes the strap, buckle, interior fit system and pads.
The bad news is that we don't have a good fix on possible problems with the interior materials yet, and we have no advice for you. The nylon or polyethelene in most straps has not yet been implicated as a problem, and at least one large manufacturer has tested all of their and found them free of pthalates. The leading buckle manufacturer has told us that their buckles are free of BPA and pthalates, a chemical Europe has banned for most uses, but continues to approve for sports equipment. Buckles have a much lower contact area than the strap in any event, and don't absorb sweat. We don't know what materials are used in the fit ring of One-Size-Fits-All helmets, or in rear stabilizers.
A conference at the Consumer Product Safety Commission in May of 2008 revealed that Wal-Mart and Toys'R'Us are ahead of this curve and already policing for lead, phthalates, bisphenol A, and many other potential problems. At that conference we learned that the largest US helmet manufacturer, Bell, has some of the same sophisticated lab test equipment used by CPSC to analyze products in their lab, and is testing every component of every helmet model to make sure they have no problems. Since the US Government has no standards for BPA or pthalates, the fact that Bell sells to Wal-Mart is probably the best indication that their products are safe, an ironic situation.
AssessmentWe think that today's helmets are safe to wear. The immediate protection of a helmet would be well worth the possibility of a small longer-term risk from chemicals, if in fact there was a risk. We ride every day in the same helmets we were using before the plastics scare began. Most of ours have polycarbonate shells. But all of our polycarbonate water bottles are history. We are favoring plastics with recycling codes 1, 2 or 4, including the Specialized brand of Low Density PolyEthelene (LDPE) water bottles made with plastics approved as food grade by the Food and Drug Administration.
We would like to know a lot more about this subject, and are updating this page as soon as we learn more. In the meantime, you are being exposed to the suspect chemicals in everyday life, and your helmet plastics are insignificant compared to what you encounter in your home, office, stores, restaurants, gyms, schools, cars and transit vehicles.
This page was updated or partially revised on: October 1, 2016.