Seriously, they suck in so many ways.
We get it, helmets are expensive. The manufacturers of good but expensive helmets recommend replacing them every five years, so even amortizing them over those five years still hurts a budget-conscious rider. That said, some trusted manufacturers (like Icon, HJC and Joe Rocket) do make DOT and Snell rated helmets that can fit the bill for a rider who doesn’t want to drop $600 on a helmet.
It used to be that you had to go to a motorcycle shop, rally, or show, to find a really cheap helmet. Anyone who’s been around the scene for a few years has picked up one of those small beanie helmets at a bike show booth and noticed the “NOVELTY USE ONLY” sticker on the inside, but modern, full-face cheap helmets are more insidious than that, and they’re available all over the internet. There are a lot of no-name helmets popping up for sale out there on sites like Amazon and eBay that are not tested, not trustworthy, and are cheap for a reason. In fact, they’re probably cheap for several reasons.
So, why are expensive helmets so expensive? Where does the expense come from? Research, testing, good manufacturing and assembly practices, good quality assurance, high-quality materials, and components that are sized to fit. Without these, you’re trusting your skull and your brain to an unknown. There is a significant danger inherent in thinking you are more protected than you are.
The major components of a helmet are the biggies. The EPS (Expanded Polystyrene), single-use foam liner in quality helmets is designed in layers and sections: the foam’s density varies depending on its location within the helmet. Cheap helmets do not employ this design or research. What is the shell of a cheap helmet made from? That’s anybody’s guess. Quality helmets will tell you exactly what that shell is made from (layered polycarbonate, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or a matrix of those) and it will vary with the expense of the helmet. A good manufacturer will be upfront about exactly what any given helmet is made from, and will have several shell sizes, so that all sizes have sufficient protective foam but are never comically huge.
Everyone talks about the safety of a helmet during a crash, and that is absolutely what they are ultimately made for. A well-made helmet will give you a better chance of surviving a crash, or even making it through totally uninjured, than a cheap helmet. However, most of the time when we are wearing our helmets, we’re not crashing, we’re just riding. How does a cheap helmet affect us then?
The materials that are in constant contact with our heads and faces in a low-quality helmet can be scratchy, contain allergens, and arrive on the shelf dirty from sub-par manufacturing processes in sub-par environments. The helmet straps in these helmets are often made with low-quality webbing that is not tested for strength, nor are their anchors or fasteners made of a material that will stand up to exposure to sweat and the elements.
While we seldom think about the helmet’s visor, that piece of plastic is often the only thing between your eyes and the rocks other vehicles kick up off the road. A very cheap helmet’s visor will shatter easily when a rock hits it at 60mph, and then you have that rock and pieces of shattered plastic in your face. UV protection is also very important; as I can tell you first hand, you can in fact sunburn your eyeballs. The optics of the shield are important. Your vision should not be obstructed at all while you are operating a motorcycle, but a crappy visor will distort the light coming in, making everything you see wiggly, and it won’t be consistent: turn your head and everything will wobble due to inconsistencies in the visor. A good quality visor will be crystal clear, shatterproof, scratch-resistant, and have UV protection.
The overall comfort of a helmet can vary greatly, but a quality helmet will always win here. Comfort is not just how the helmet feels against your skin, but includes things like the noise level inside the helmet at speed, the airflow through the helmet (good and bad), venting, and the way the visor seals against the helmet, including letting wind or rain through.
Finally, a cheap helmet can be a false economy over a reasonably-priced, good-quality helmet from a trusted manufacturer. Even if you do not crash in that cheap helmet, it will fall apart with any amount of regular use well before that five-year mark, and you’ll need to replace it. A good helmet will protect your head in its first crash at five years old just as well as it would have when it was new. A cheap helmet? That’s anybody’s guess.