reader question: on helmets and helmet hair

Helmet Panda 2 Spring time bike ride

I recently received an email from a reader who has just moved to NYC and is biking in a much larger and more intimidating context. She writes that she would like to wear a helmet in this more traffic-heavy environment but that she doesn’t love the idea for several reasons. Here’s what C. had to say:

I used to ride (on separated bike paths) every Sunday with my family until I moved to NYC, and none of us would wear helmets. I was totally comfortable with that, but riding in traffic I know I will need one. I appreciate that you aren’t judgmental about helmets on your blog. I’ve never worn one, and I know a lot of people would lecture me about that. There are several reasons I haven’t worn a helmet: my parents never made me use one growing up so I never felt like I needed one, I typically stick to paths where traffic is not allowed, and I have very curly hair so my helmet head is awful and I can’t brush it out like people with straight hair.

C. goes on to ask whether I could recommend a helmet and whether I have any tips for warding off helmet hair. Here’s my reply…

First off, I’d like to stress that I do not advocate for or against helmet use. It’s a hotly debated topic on bike blogs and in cycling circles and my take is that every adult can make that decision for her or himself. Several factors should likely be considered: the infrastructure, the bike-friendliness of motorized traffic, the cyclist’s comfort level with biking, etc.etc.

I do wear a helmet on a regular basis for commutes in a small Midwestern city that is only partially equipped with bike paths and that has its fair share of biking unfriendliness. Also: a lot of pick-ups and intoxicated college students. As a result, I feel safer knowing that my noggin is protected.

In Europe, I have biked around Munich and Prague and felt comfortable doing so without a helmet in both places. Munich is extremely bike friendly and while Prague is not as much, I was biking there as part of a tour group and felt safe and visible as part of the group. In Colorado, while renting bikes, we were simply given helmets at the rental shop and wore them without thinking much about it. In Portland, no helmet. Again: context matters.

Shadow Photographer
{with hair blowing in the wind}

In terms of helmet choices, my recommendations are based on my experience with Giro and Nutcase helmets. This summer I’ve preferred wearing my red Giro helmet, even though it’s a sportier look, because it’s well ventilated and the most breathable of my helmets.

I also have this black Giro helmet that has a more classic look, almost like a riding helmet, and I like it because it adjusts in size and makes for a great fit. The drawback: less ventilated and hotter in the summer. But perfect for spring, fall, and winter.

And last, I have this Nutcase helmet, which I like well enough but is non-adjustable in size and thus always a bit loose on me (I have a small head).

I don’t think helmets are that flattering on me (that’s why I tend to pose for pictures while holding my helmet rather than wearing it) and I always marvel at how other cyclists can make helmets look good, but I  believe in the advantages of wearing one in my situation, so… function over form it is. To answer reader C’s question, I would recommend the Giros over the Nutcase only because the size adjuster in the back of the helmet allows you to loosen the fit or tighten it according to hair style (or head size!).

As for avoiding helmet hair: with longer and curly hair, I have found braids to be the perfect solution. With my shorter hair, I just shake it out and hope for the best.

Primary Colors Fall bike ride to work
Fall Cycling Green no.1
{Heidi braids, french braids, side braids, braids galore}

Dave of Portlandize once noted that his post titled Why I Don’t Wear a Helmet is one of the most frequently viewed posts on his blog. (He puts forth some compelling arguments). Meanwhile, Tina of San Francisco, defends the Hot in a Helmet campaign in this post. And Valentine, who rides her gorgeous bikes around Paris, is never pictured sporting a helmet until she – wait for it – rides a bike in the US. Again, do what feels right for you!  But if you want to wear a helmet, I stronly recommend one that is well ventilated and adjustable in size.


Do you wear a helmet? If so, what’s your prefered brand and model? Do you hate wearing a helmet? Do you wear one and have perfected the perfect solution for avoiding helmet hair? Chime in with tips for reader C. below, just remember to play nice on the whole helmet vs. no helmet issue! 

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{Bikes, a new baby, and the story of us.}
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24 Responses to reader question: on helmets and helmet hair

  1. aem2 says:

    I have a Bell that’s like the Nutcase: not much ventilation. I also have fairly wavy hair (sometimes curly, sometimes straightish) and I’ve found that twirling up small sections before putting the helmet on and taking my helmet off as soon as I get to where I’m going helps keep the worst of the helmet head at bay. This trick also works under hats.

  2. nicole says:

    Just a note: my nutcase is size adjustable, so it may depend what model you buy. It’s been a while since I had curly hair (having babies does weird things), but what about a spray bottle of water and a pick comb to work out the head hair. Too much trouble for errands but for a commute to work might help.

  3. Elise says:

    I hate wearing a helmet, but riding in Chicago, I do it anyway, even on the off chance that it could protect my head if I got hit and crashed. A few weeks ago, though, I saw this:

    Incredible “invisible helmet” project taken on by 2 design students. Currently, the invisible helmet is $600, but hopefully someday it will be more affordable!

  4. Stephanie says:

    I have a Bell helmet that’s “lady sized.” And that’s probably where my problems began, because I have a rather large head so I should have probably bought a dude’s helmet. But, I rarely wear my helmet because of the following reasons:
    1. It’s too small and I hate it.
    2. I am a sweaty, sweaty girl, so even if I put my hair up under the helmet when I take it off I look like I’ve just taken a shower… *in sweat.* I have problems with head and face sweat when I ride without a helmet too, so I have to put my hair back anyway and brush it out when I get to my destination.

    I feel a lot of guilt for not wearing my helmet, though in my college town that is cycling-friendly-ish, probably more people don’t wear helmets than do. But, a helmet saved my life when I was learning how to ride my bike and took a nasty spill, so I certainly recognize the value of one. I just don’t know how to wear one and manage to look and smell halfway decent when I get to my destination.

  5. S., I agree with everything you posted here. I wear a helmet if I’m riding outside of my neighborhood, but in my neighborhood I nearly always go helmet-less. There’s something about the wind in my hair. We do feel strongly about making our kids wear helmets. And I’m glad: My son had a nasty spill a couple of weeks ago and hit his head on the curb. He got up and kept riding because he had that helmet on.

    I prefer the side ponytail or low ponytail when riding with a helmet. I recently cut bangs and they have helped ward off helmet hair to an extent – although I realize that’s probably not possible with curly hair.

    • simplybike says:

      I’m with you – our daughter HAS to wear a helmet and will always have to as she gets older. It was the rule for me too growing up and I think until she’s old enough to decide for herself (although I’m not sure when that will be…), she’ll have to wear a helmet.

      And yes to the side or the low pony!


  6. Christina says:

    I also do not feel I look ‘good’ in a helmet so I never would take a pic with one on (although I think you look great!) I one Bern round-ish winter bicycle helmet with the ear flaps/warmth insert and one Schwinn sporty helmet that has vents and isn’t so ‘hot’ in warmer temps. I chose the Schwinn helmet after trying on a zillion different helmets, it was the only one that felt comfortable and for some reason didn’t make me look horrible. Ironically, it was affordable and at Target. I have tried Nutcase but have sent them all back, I too have a smaller head/more narrow.

    In the end, I rarely wear a helmet. I never grew up wearing helmets, I was a rough and tumble type kid, we got banged up and scraped, we got stitches, and we got through life. None of my family members in Germany who use bicycles for daily living transport wear helmets, I don’t think they even think to wear one.

    I will, however, wear a helmet if I ride fast road cycling bikes designed for speed and sport. Since I rarely ride like that, I’m rarely in a helmet. But, speed and sporty, helmet is on. Riding to the post office, no.


  7. Brittany says:

    I will admit it took my 2-3 months of daily bike commuting to get on board with a helmet. I have semi-curly but very frizzy hair that the southern humidity just loves to “fuzz-up”. I stick with low buns or braids most days. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I won’t have cute straight hair at work, haha!

    In terms of safety, I live in a city (Savannah, GA) with very, very few bike lanes and zero dedicated bike trails. Savannah is a small city but the roads are “historic” so not very wide and drivers range from totally indifferent, to courteous, to outright hostile. I feel safer in my helmet, but I definitely feel tempted to leave it at home every once in a while!

  8. Sarah says:

    I wear a helmet with every ride in our current city, mainly out of fear due to a combination of my husband being hit by cars while bicycling 3 times in 18 months and always walking away fine thanks to his helmet and also seeing the devastating effects of traumatic brain injury on his college advisor who was hit by a car while walking across the street. I love my polka dot Nutcase, and it is adjustable with a little dial thingy and a variety of pad sizes. I have short curly hair and my strategy is thus: always do my morning ride with wet hair and always carry a curl rejuvenator. What product works depends on individual hair type, some people have success with oils, some with commercial products. I find a 50/50 mix of water and aloe vera scrunched into my hair as soon as I can take off my helmet does a good job of bringing back any ringlets that were squished by my helmet. This strategy is slightly less effective later in the day when I’m riding between my home campus and my teaching job, but still works well enough to get everything under control.

    Even in a more bike-friendly city, I think I’d wear a helmet because helmet wearing has so been ingrained to my biking experience. I also ride horses regularly (and a riding helmet likely saved me from a serious injury after at least one fall), so maybe it’s just that helmets are naturally part of my daily life.

  9. Meg says:

    I came across this yesterday:

    I don’t have one or anything, but it’s a cool idea!

  10. Bettina says:

    I live in Germany (Hamburg) and I do usually wear a helmet, generally I think German cyclists are split on headgear. I have a Giro Skyla and even though it doesn’t look great on me – I think it makes me look like a mushroom with a *huge* head – I feel safer with it. I’ve biked all my life and worn a helmet on and off. When I was younger my parents would try to make me wear one but they weren’t very convincing. What made me come around to it was a thought that hit me about half way through my PhD: I’m a researcher and I only have this one brain, so I’d better protect it. So now I put it on unless I’m only going on a very short ride in my neighbourhood.

    Re: helmet hair, I recently chopped off my long hair in favour of a short pixie cut and I was really worried about it initially. However, I think I’ve found a pretty good solution: hair wax. It stays flexible so once I get to work I quickly nip into the bathroom and “readjust” my hair.

    • Kat says:

      That’s funny, one of my fellow grad students and me had a discussion the other day, we were talking about spending thousands of dollars on education and then being too cheap to buy a helmet to protect the brain.

      I used to bike without a helmet for most of my life (I grew up in Germany), but this changed after I moved to Canada; the relationship between drivers and cyclists seems to be a little different over here. I still think it looks stupid, and I think it ruins my hair…oh well. If I had kids, I’d force them to wear helmets, so I guess I can practice and apply the same standards to myself.

  11. melissa says:

    I just wanted to put in another good word for Nutcase helmets. I have a huge head and even men’s helmets don’t usually fit me properly. I ordered a Nutcase helmet and it fits very well! It is adjustable which is fabulous. Perhaps they are making them differently now. I live in Florida and so far overheating in the helmet hasn’t been an issue. I’m not biking great distances right now though so perhaps I’m just not getting warm enough to experience funky helmet hair.

    • simplybike says:

      Great to know that there are adjustable Nutcase helmets out there because I do like the look of them and this makes them more likely to fit even my small head then. I’ll have to look into that!


  12. tOrso says:

    I never used to wear a helmet, but then got thrown to the road by a motorist turning into me and lost two teeth in the deal. Going down I thought it was going to be worse, and was p.o’d at the injustice that was about to happen.

    I came out lucky. I got new teeth, a new bike, and a helmet.

    On the other hand, I spent most of a year in China a few years later, got a bike to ride there, and never wore a helmet in that time.

    Now I go without the helmet in places where cars aren’t permitted. Yes, it is more pleasant.

  13. Sara says:

    I commuted to work by bike for a couple years in a small California college town. I always wore a helmet. I have thin, straight-ish hair and would wear it in a low pony tail most days. I would usually adjust it once I got to work.

  14. Vicki says:

    I live in Australia so it is compulsory to wear a helmet. Many people here don’t wear them but I do, mostly. My helmet is just a cheap one I got from Aldis as I am really only wearing it to comPly with the law. My hair is a short bob and is straight, I tie it in a pony while riding then take it out when I get to my destination and shake it out, it looks ok if it is not too sweaty and lately I have been using a conditioning treatment on it when I shampoo it and that has helped with its appearance too.

  15. simplybike says:

    This comment has been pulled from the spam file, sorry commentor!

    “I’ve been cycling (in two European cities) for nine years and have only just bought a helmet. I’m pregnant, and hoping to continue cycling for as long as possible, and am feeling extremely conflicted about the whole thing. One one hand, I want to do as much as possible to protect my body and my baby, but on the other, I feel like I’m validating much of the hyperbolic nonsense that gets trotted out about my city being unsafe to cycle in. Yargh.

    Anyway. I ended up buying a Sawako Furuno helmet, because it looks cute, and I’m vain. And the low pony works for me, too – I shake it out in the office bathroom and spritz with a little dry shampoo if need be to ‘reset’.”

  16. Maz says:

    I find this post interesting, because I live in Australia where it is compulsory for all cyclists to wear helmets. In fact, as it is instilled into us from childhood that helmets equate to safety, I have never stopped to think about NOT wearing a helmet. Road safety is a big issue in this country and for us, bikes and helmets are synonymous! Today, anyone not wearing one is the odd person out, and most people would really think very poorly of them. A raft of helmets are sold here but they all must comply with certain safety standards. While I can’t profess to know what the US regulates with respect of helmets, safety, in addition to aesthetic, is always a good criteria when thinking about acquiring a new helmet.

    • simplybike says:

      Hi Maz,

      thanks for chiming in, it’s always interesting to learn from readers of other countries the differences in bike cultures. And yes, safety before aesthetics!


  17. Pingback: Simply Bike » to encourage biking, cities should focus more on infrastructure and less on helmets use

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