A complete buyer’s guide on the different types of motorcycle helmets, including their advantages and disadvantages.
The motorcycle helmet is the most important safety gear for any rider, so much so that many federal, state-, and municipal-level jurisdictions around the world mandate that you wear one before riding your bike on public roads.
Interesting fact: In 2016, motorcycle helmets saved approximately 1,859 lives in America alone, and another 802 lives could have been saved had all motorcyclists worn helmets.
Even if you’re not required by law to wear a helmet, it is incumbent upon you to ALWAYS ride with one. Adopt the ATGATT mindset as part of your riding lifestyle — all the gear, all the time!
Check out: The 10 Best Motorcycle Helmets
Public service announcement out of the way, let’s look at the different types of helmets on the market, how motorcycle helmet safety standards affect you, how properly a helmet should fit your head, and the essential safety features to look out for before buying one.
The Different Types Of Motorcycle Helmets
There are six main types of motorcycle helmets: full-face helmet, modular (flip-up) helmet, open-face (three-quarter) helmet, half (brain bucket) helmet, off-road (motocross) helmet, and dual-sport.
The full-face helmet might as well be called the “full-head” helmet, seeing as it covers your entire head and much of your neck for maximum impact absorption. Because of this, it is widely considered the safest motorcycle helmet type.
A notable feature that sets full-face helmets apart from many other types of helmets is the presence of a chin bar. Studies on motorcycle head injuries have shown that the chin takes around 40 to 50 percent of the impact during accidents, making a helmet that protects that area of the head invaluable.
Despite their rigid appearance, full-face helmets are a versatile choice for riders of any type of motorbike. Their design varies depending on the kind of riding you do.
Sports riders, for instance, ride in a crouched position that necessitates a higher chin bar and a visor opening angled slightly towards the top of the helmet for optimal visibility.
Adventure riders, tourers, and cruisers, on the other hand, ride in an upright position that requires the helmet to have a lower chin bar and a more forward-angled visor opening. These “casual” helmets place a stronger emphasis on comfort and soundproofing, sometimes featuring convenience add-ons such as Bluetooth, microphones, etc.
Ventilation can be an issue with full-face helmets. Having the visor closed, especially when riding at high speeds, turns the helmet into a sealed bubble, so you’ll have to look for one that is well-ventilated to prevent your head from getting too hot, sweaty, or even smelly.
Fortunately, most full-face helmets have built-in ventilation that evaporates sweat, reduces visor fogging, and keeps the rider cool. With some designs, the vents can be closed in colder months to reduce the amount of air that enters the helmet.
Modular Helmets (Flip-up Helmets)
Also known as a flip-up helmet, the modular helmet has a chin bar that, along with the visor, flips up or can be entirely removed, transforming it from a full-face helmet into an open-face configuration.
Popular with adventure and sport-touring riders, these extremely versatile helmets tend to have a design that has been optimized for casual, upright riding positions. The flip-up mechanism allows you to grab something quick to eat, have a smoke, look at a map, or talk to a friend without having to take the entire helmet off.
Of course, it is generally not recommended that you ride with these types of motorbike helmets in the open-face configuration. The fact that the flipped-up chin bar rests on top of the helmet makes the helmet less aerodynamic and safe when you’re riding.
Modular helmets are also slightly heavier and less safe than traditional full-face helmets due to the hinge required for the flip-up mechanism adding extra weight and weakening their otherwise solid structure. Even so, they offer more protection than open-face and half helmets.
Open Face Helmet (¾ Helmets)
True to their name, open-face helmets cover the top, back, and sides of your head, leaving the face exposed to the elements. These types of helmets are particularly popular among scooter riders, cruisers, tourers, and cafe racers due to their vintage feel and the visceral sense of having the wind on their skin.
Many open-face helmets come with a partial or full-face visor to protect the face and eyes from debris, rain, and sunlight, while others require you to buy the visor or a set of goggles separately.
Regardless, unfavorable weather conditions can make riding with open-face helmets problematic. For example, even if your helmet comes with a flip-down visor, you might still need a bandana, scarf, or other such fabrics to protect your mouth and chin area.
Although open-face helmets are structurally equal in terms of safety when compared to full-face helmets (they are often made from the same materials), the lack of coverage for the face and the absence of a chin bar significantly reduces their safety.
Half Helmets (Brain Bucket)
Half helmets, or “brain buckets” as they are commonly known, provide the least protection of all six types of motorcycle helmets. They mostly cover the top of the head, normally reaching down to the upper forehead and halfway down the back of the head.
Some half helmets extend all the way down to the back of your neck and ears to provide a little more coverage, though the rest of your face remains exposed to the elements. Additionally, most don’t come with a face shield or visor, so you’ll need to purchase riding glasses, goggles, or other forms of eye protection separately.
Because of their simple design, half helmets usually come with minimal technological features or upgrade options like Bluetooth speakers, seeing as they lack the space for such features to be embedded.
Despite their glaring disadvantages, “brain buckets” are extremely popular with cruisers and vintage riders, especially the Harley-Davidson crowd, due to their aesthetics and the great airflow they provide.
Off-Road Helmet (Motocross Helmets)
Off-road helmets are a type of full-face helmet optimized for riding on dirt roads. They are commonly used by Motocross riders, hence why they are also called Motocross helmets.
Because dirt riding demands more physicality from the rider than street riding, and because it’s an activity often carried out in warmer weather, this helmet type is designed to maximize protection and ventilation and minimize weight.
They are built with larger eyeports for enhanced visibility and come with sun peaks that block sun glare and guard against flying dirt and debris (“roost” in Motocross lingo). They also have more pronounced and angular chin bars for improved airflow.
Off-road helmets are not ideal for riding on the highway because their minimal soundproofing lets in wind and traffic noise, which can be annoying and distracting. Moreover, their sun peaks, which are prone to being lifted when riding at speeds, make them very un-aerodynamic.
Motocross helmets usually don’t come with built-in face shields but are instead designed to be used with goggles. Why? Goggles are better for airflow and can be used with tear-offs in very dirty conditions.
Off-road helmets can be made from a variety of advanced materials such as fiberglass, carbon fiber, and Kevlar, materials that are both strong and lightweight for optimal weight reduction and protection.
If you plan to wear body armor or a neck brace, make sure your Motocross helmet of choice accommodates these systems. Also, certain helmets fit certain goggles better than others, so check that the shape of your goggles matches your helmet’s eyeport.
Dual-Sport Helmet (crossover, ADV, hybrid, enduro)
Dual-sport helmets are a mix of off-road and traditional full-face helmets. Not only do they come with sun peak and excellent ventilation like motocross helmets, but they also offer a little more warmth, soundproofing, and overall comfort for better on-road riding, not unlike full-face helmets.
They also have a built-in visor and a truncated, less pronounced chin bar. You don’t have to purchase riding glasses or goggles separately, though you can wear them when the helmet’s visors are flipped up.
Unlike Motocross helmets, you don’t have to worry about these types of helmets turning into kites when riding at highway speeds. That’s because the sun peaks are aerodynamically designed to resist lifting by the wind.
Dual-sport helmets are designed with versatility in mind. For example, although they don’t exceed motocross helmets in terms of ventilation, their ventilation is superior to what you get from standard full-face helmets. And although they are not as comfortable as full-face helmets, they are notably more comfortable than motocross helmets.
So, if you’re looking for protective headgear that’s suitable for both on-road and off-road riding, these types of helmets are a good bet.
Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standards
All helmets, regardless of their brand, model, or type, may need to meet certain motorcycle safety standards in your country or state. For example, in most U.S. states, a D.O.T. (Department of Transportation) safety approval is required before a helmet can be sold or used.
Snell is another body of U.S. safety standards that’s even stricter than the D.O.T. regulations, while the European Union has the ECE 22.05. Other regions around the world have similar certifications, such as the JIS rating system in Japan, SHARP in the UK, and CRASH in Australia.
Most certifications use a similar set of criteria to test helmets, but how they conduct the tests can differ greatly. Regardless, always make sure the helmet you choose to wear meets or exceeds the testing standards required for your location.
When in doubt, play it safe by going with a major brand, and never buy a used helmet.
Anatomy Of A Motorcycle Helmet
The motorcycle helmet has come a long way since its invention in 1914 when it was nothing more than a piece of canvas covered in shellac. Thanks to rapid technological innovations, they are safer, lighter, more comfortable, and more convenient than ever before.
Nowadays, you have helmets that are essentially wearable smartphones, featuring Bluetooth capabilities that let you take advantage of your phone’s various convenience features, such as listening to music, making hands-free calls, accessing navigation, and more.
But despite the rapid advancements in motorcycle helmet design and technology, the core anatomy has remained unchanged for decades. Let’s look at the main components of motorcycle helmets:
The outer shell is the outermost part of any helmet. Rigid in composition and usually made from molded plastic, Kevlar, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or a blend of those materials, it protects your head from injury and abrasion by preventing objects from penetrating the helmet in the event of an impact.
Impact Absorbing Liner
Sandwiched between the tough outer shell and the soft inner liner is the impact-absorbing liner. This expanded polystyrene/polypropylene (EPS) foam deforms and absorbs shock and displaces energy during an impact.
Some models and types of helmets have single-density EPS, while others have multiple layers for added impact absorption.
Padded Comfort Layer
The padded comfort layer is the surface inside the helmet that your head rests on. Usually consisting of a cloth-covered open-cell foam, it is sweat-wicking and keeps your head cool while riding.
These liners are usually removable, allowing you to easily wash them. Some helmets even allow you to add or remove padding to achieve an ideal fit for your head.
Face Shield / Visor
The purpose of the face shield or visor is self-explanatory — it keeps dirt, debris, bugs, and other substances from hitting your face and obstructing your view.
Motorcycle face shields and visors can come in an assortment of tints and customizable colors for different environments. They are often removable, allowing them to be easily cleaned or swapped out for another shield/visor.
Retention System (Chin Strap)
Usually composed of a tough nylon strap with a quick-release button or “D” rings, the helmet retention system (chin strap, as it is commonly called), is secured under your chin to keep the helmet securely planted on your head as you ride.
The helmet’s ventilation system, if existent, circulates fresh air inside the helmet to help keep your head cool, evaporate sweat as fast as possible, and keep bad odor at bay. Ventilation is more commonly found on full-face and modular (¾) helmets than on all other types of motorcycle helmets.
Most vents can be fully opened or closed by the rider, allowing you to open or close them as you see fit.
Some types of helmets, particularly full-face and ¾ styles, have cheek pads for your cheeks to comfortably rest against. These cheek pads can be customized to accommodate different head sizes and shapes and are removable for cleaning.
Not only do they make the helmet more comfortable and fit more securely, but they also serve as an extra layer of protection for your face.
How To Find Your Motorcycle Helmet Size
Whatever type of motorcycle helmet you end up going with, make sure it fits your head correctly. In many ways, the fit of a helmet is more important than its actual quality.
Helmets that are too small will tightly press against your head, possibly cutting it or giving you a headache, while oversized units tend to be noisy and are just plain unsafe due to the lack of a secure fit.
Plus, the more uncomfortable a helmet is, the less likely you are to wear it while riding your bike and the more likely you are to give up on wearing helmets altogether.
Ill-fitting helmets put your life at risk both directly and indirectly, so it’s essential to get the sizing right. Use the following six steps to find your motorcycle helmet size:
Step 1. Choose the right type of motorcycle helmet for your riding needs. Refer to the previous section of this guide for a full rundown of each type, including their advantages and disadvantages.
Step 2. Determine your head shape. Ask a friend to take a photo of your head from above, and look at the picture to see if your head is mostly round, long and thin (long), or somewhere in between (intermediate). Flatten your hair down as much as possible so that it doesn’t obscure your head’s shape.
Step 3. Determine your head size by using a soft measuring tape to measure the circumference of your head. Run the tape just above your eyebrows and ears, wrapping it around the widest part of your head.
Step 4. Compare the results you obtained in Step 2 and Step 3 to the helmet manufacturer’s sizing chart to determine which size you need to get.
Step 5. Try the helmet on. To ensure it fits properly, tighten the chin strap enough that only two of your fingers can fit between the strap and the bottom of your chin. In the case of full-face helmets, you should feel the cheek cushions against your cheeks. Also check that your cheeks, not the helmet, move when you move the chin bar around.
Note: Going to an actual store to try on the specific model is the best course of action. If that’s not possible, make sure to try the helmet the moment you take ownership of it so that you have enough time to replace it should you need to.
Step 6. Check the helmet for proper fit by wearing it for 15 to 30 minutes (don’t ride your bike). If fitment becomes an issue, especially if you start feeling pain or severe discomfort, this is not the helmet for you. Find another one.
Types Of Helmets FAQs And Answers
The answers to these popular questions about the different types of motorcycle helmets will further help you find the best helmet type for your riding needs.
What Kind of Helmet Should I Use To Ride A Motorcycle?
You can ride a bike with any type of motorcycle helmet. However, regardless of whether you choose to wear a full-face, open-face, brain bucket, modular (flip-up), off-road, or dual-sport helmet, you must make sure it meets the safety standards required by your country, state/province, or city.
What Is The Safest Motorcycle Helmet?
Although there is no universally accepted organization or process (countries/states may have different standards and protocols) for testing helmet safety and determining which motorcycle helmet is the safest, full-face motorcycle helmets are generally considered the safest because they provide the most coverage for your head.
Do You Need A Full-Face Helmet For A Sports Bike?
You don’t NEED to wear a full-face motorcycle helmet when riding a sportbike, but you definitely should. Full-face helmets, including flip-up, off-road, and dual-sport variants, provide significantly more protection for your head and face against impacts, debris, sunlight, and other elemental factors than open-face and half helmets.
How Effective Are Military Helmets For Motorcycle Riding?
Military helmets are not optimized for riding safely on a motorbike. Whereas a motorcycle helmet is designed from the ground up to be lightweight, aerodynamic, and protect your head from debris and impacts at high speeds, military helmets have a design that primarily focuses on protecting your head from bullets, with less of an emphasis on weight-reduction, aerodynamics, and even comfort.
Can You Wear A Football Helmet To Ride A Motorcycle?
Riding your motorcycle with a football helmet as your protective headgear is very risky and downright idiotic, so don’t do it. Football helmets can’t withstand the high-speed impacts that motorcycle helmets are designed for, and they are not DOT-, Snell-, or ECE-approved.
Can You Wear A Bicycle Helmet On A Motorcycle?
Even if the laws in your area allow you to wear a bicycle helmet on a motorcycle, you shouldn’t. Motorcycle helmets are engineered to protect riders at speeds of 25-65 mph (40-105 km/h) and higher, while bicycle helmets are designed to protect cyclists at an average speed of 15 mph (24 km/h).
What Are The Best Motorcycle Helmets For Long Rides?
The best motorcycle helmet for long rides is the one that provides the best fit, feels lightweight and comfortable, and offers great protection against impacts and environmental factors. A poor-fitting helmet can give you rashes, cuts, and/or headaches, as well as obstruct your vision by flopping and slipping down over your eyes while you ride.
Can I Listen To Music While Riding A Motorcycle?
Not only can you listen to music while riding a motorcycle, but many bikes also have a stereo built into their fairing, and a growing number of motorcycle helmets come with speaker pockets and Bluetooth capabilities that allow you to pair your smartphone for listening to music, making hands-free calls, accessing navigation, etc.
Buying a motorcycle helmet comms system is also a good option. Often mounted to the side of the helmet, this device comes with speakers and a microphone, allowing you to listen to your favorite music and communicate with other riders who have compatible comms systems.
Do We Need A Full Face Helmet Or Open Face?
Deciding between a full-face, open-face, or half-helmet comes down to personal preference. If you are someone who cares mostly about protection and sound insulation, a full-face helmet is likely your best bet. On the other hand, if you love the visceral feeling of wind on your skin while riding, then consider going with an open-face or half helmet.
Conclusion – Types Of Helmets
When it comes to riding safely, the motorcycle helmet is by far the most important piece of safety gear. Helmets save more lives than every other riding gear combined, so never make the mistake of riding your motorbike without wearing one.
There are many different helmets to choose from. Not only did we cover the six main types of motorcycle helmets, the safety standards governing them, and their core design elements, but we also provided a simple guide for finding the right helmet size so that you have the knowledge and confidence needed to find the best motorcycle helmet for your riding needs.