Soft-shell helmets aren’t new—Giro launched its Combyn and Discord ski helmets in 2013—but the models currently on the market look a lot like regular hard-shell lids. You have a plastic outer layer that's more flexible than other helmets, but it’s far from being totally pliable.
Recently, however, we’ve seen a burst of true soft-shell activity as companies look to develop new materials that will absorb impacts better while providing athletes with a more comfortable fit. And the next generation of these lids will actually be soft. Dainese, a company best known for its soft body protection for motorcyclists, is set to release the first true soft-shell helmet, called the Flex, next winter. This new helmet uses Dainese’s proprietary foam—the same stuff found in the company’s back protectors—and a water-repellant fabric for the outer shell. It’s a truly flexible, truly soft ski helmet that has all the requisite impact certifications.
Most standard helmets use expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, which is made up of a bunch of beads that crunch under the force of impact. EPS works quite well during a big impact, but it only works once. If you take a header on your bike or on skis that’s hard enough to engage the protective properties of EPS, the helmet is toast because the foam crushes during the crash. The other limitation is that EPS doesn’t work terribly well during low-impact collisions: Whack a tree limb, and if the force isn’t great enough to engage the EPS, that energy is transferred to your head. You get rattled.
Instead of EPS, the Giro Combyn and Discord have a flexible plastic outer shell and an inner layer of vinyl nitrile—a proprietary foam that compresses during impact but bounces back into shape. (Hence the term “soft shell,” even though the helmet looks and feels, from the outside, like a standard hard shell.) “Think about your freestyle or backcountry skier who goes hard and falls a lot. Those little crashes hurt because the EPS doesn’t absorb the impact,” says Mattia Berardi, snow helmet product manager at Giro. “This new VN foam absorbs small impacts, so it’s much more comfortable during those little crashes and bounces back after big impacts, so it can handle multiple crashes.”
Other lids, like the Dainese, are in the works. Rogers Corporation, an advanced materials company, has developed a soft-shell foam called XRD that’s flexible, stands up to multiple impacts, and provides just as much protection as a hard-shell helmet. “It’s completely soft, so it’s comfortable to wear; you can roll it up and put it in your pocket, and it protects your head just as well as a helmet with a hard shell and EPS,” says Dave Sherman, innovation leader at Rogers.
Pittsburgh-based 2nd Skull puts two millimeters of XRD in its beanies, which are designed to be worn under existing helmets. The company says adding a layer of this foam beneath a bike or ski helmet adds 35 percent more impact protection than using the standard helmet alone. But Sherman claims that the hard plastic shell isn’t necessary if you have a thick enough layer of XRD—and he says Rogers Corporation has the impact tests to prove it. “We formulated the molecules to act like a hard shell during impact. It’s flexible and soft, but when it gets hit, the molecules freeze solid like a hard shell, giving you good protection.”
Sherman believes in the material so much that he’s built a prototype soft-shell helmet that he wears while skiing. He carries it in his pocket and wears it beneath his beanie. Rogers Corporation has no plans to take the soft-shell helmet to market, but the company is shopping the idea around to a variety of helmet manufacturers.
Meanwhile, a small startup in London has developed a similar proprietary foam and created a foldable soft-shell bike helmet called Headkayse that it’s hoping to fund through an Indiegogo campaign.
It might be a few years before you see a large U.S. helmet company, like a POC or Giro, producing a purely soft-shell helmet. “Several helmet manufacturers are working on soft-shell helmets [he couldn’t disclose the names] because they know it’s a trend that’s coming, but they’re hesitant to pull the trigger,” Sherman says. “It’s hard to convey the message that a soft shell will protect as much as a hard shell. People still think they need that big, bulky helmet for protection.”