New helmet technology is constantly evolving, but the battle against concussions doesn’t have to be waged with brand new gear every year. Keeping hardware, straps, and padding in good condition is a crucial first step, as is making sure a helmet fits the way it should.
When it comes to the shock absorbing padding, soft foam inserts have been around for a long time. Noticeably, though, those pads don’t stay so squishy throughout the years.
One of the easiest ways to keep a helmet in good condition, according to LSU equipment manager Greg Stringfellow, is to clean the foam padding occasionally, either at the end of a season or whenever the helmet will be left unused for an extended length of time. Antibacterial washes can extend the life of a helmet’s padding at least a season, he points out. The sweat that accumulates on the foam padding can cause corrosion and cracking, rendering the padding hard and ineffective.
In many of today’s modern helmets, manufacturers are taking a page out of cycling’s book when it comes to new padding technology. Riddell, Easton, and other companies are now choosing to use harder[,] Expanded Polypropylene Plastic (EPP) foam, which is one step closer to the rigid foam used in bike helmets.
This EPP foam has higher impact absorption, is lighter in weight, and is generally paired with softer foam to cushion the head. It also doesn’t break down with sweat, leaving only the smaller cushioned parts of the helmet to be replaced. In addition to keeping a helmet’s padding in good shape, checking the condition of a helmet’s working parts, like the chin straps and other snaps, is vital.
Another potential option is to have a helmet reconditioned by a local dealer or by sending it to the manufacturer. While the costs of shipping and reconditioning may add up, its generally cheaper than buying a new helmet. However, a 2010New York Times exposé found that few, if any, helmets are re-tested after reconditioning, so the process doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a helmet is returned in a safe, usable condition. Likewise, a separate New York Times analysisfrom last year found that, due to performance concerns, any helmet more than 10 years old should be completely avoided. And keep in mind that even in perfect condition, a helmet is ineffective if it does not fit correctly.
A rule of thumb for all helmets is to make sure the helmet fits firmly but comfortably. Stringfellow looks for the padding to pull the skin on a player’s forehead when he tugs the helmet slightly.
It is also important to start with a properly sized helmet, and then make the necessary adjustments from there.
A proper mouth guard is the last key to helmet fitting and concussion prevention. Not only do mouth guards protect an athlete’s teeth and mouth, the force absorbed by the rubber can decrease the impact of a blow to the chin enough to minimize and even prevent concussions.