Let's face it: None of us likes to think that our riding helmets could develop that musty, sweaty smell. But it can happen.
"A helmet can get pretty gross," says Tabitha Knaub, manager of Dominion Saddlery in Burbank, California. "Especially if you're at a horse show, the weather's hot, and you've left your helmet on all day long."
Fortunately, you aren't the only athlete who has to deal with helmet odor. You're in the same boat as cyclists (motor and pedal), climbers, hockey and football players, and anyone else who participates in an active sport that requires head protection. That's a big market for anti-stink remedies. So it's no surprise that with a little legwork—which we'll help you do—you can find products and strategies that will prolong the life and effectiveness of your helmet, increase the chances it'll be dry and comfy the next time you put it on, and (best of all) banish that sweat-socks odor.
Why Your Helmet Smells
Warm, damp, dark environments are where mold, bacteria, and fungus tend to grow, so a sweaty helmet is prime breeding ground for all three. Fresh air is their chief enemy.
You may unwittingly encourage these unwelcome guests if, after riding, you stow your still-damp helmet inside your tack trunk or wrap it in a plastic bag to keep it dust-free. Either way, with no flow of fresh air to help it dry quickly, the lining stays damp, allowing bacteria and molds to flourish and give off foul smells. And the damage doesn't stop with an assault on the olfactory sensibilities: Persistent dampness can shorten your helmet's protective life by causing glues to deteriorate and liner fabric and padding to rot.
It's best to be proactive because odors can be hard to eradicate once they're established. "After riding, the best thing to do is to not put your helmet in a bag or box," Tabitha Knaub says particularly if it's fabric-lined. Instead, she advises, wipe the inside with a clean, damp cloth; then let the helmet air-dry.
If you must, go ahead and store your helmet in your tack trunk or a hat bag, but only temporarily. As soon as you can, take it out to allow some airflow and let it dry. If you're at a show and you need to lock the helmet away, keep it in your car or the tack-storage area of your trailer.
You can also invest in an electric helmet dryer that emits a steady stream of warm air. An Internet search for "helmet dryers" will reveal many companies (such as NBS-IT Inc. and Impact Racer) that sell devices specifically intended to dry helmets, in various designs, for a wide range of prices. Most dryers can't be used when the helmet is locked away in a cupboard, though. If you purchase a dryer, be sure not to leave it (or any other electrical heating devices) unattended.
When Your Helmet Is Already Sweaty
Fabric-softener sheets (find them in any supermarket laundry-products section for a couple of dollars a box) don't necessarily kill odor-causing bacteria, but they do help to diminish the odor itself. One or two crumpled inside your helmet after riding make for an inexpensive, easy-to-do solution and "even help prevent static cling with your hair in the winter," Tabitha says.
Spray-on bactericides and odor removers, such as helmet-maker Charles Owen's Hat Deodorizer (about $10) or English Riding Supply's No Sweat Sport Hat & Helmet Refresher ($12.50) are available at tack shops, online, and through many catalogs. Available online at motorcycle-equipment websites such as www.cyclegadgets.com is Helmet Fresh deodorizer ($4.95). At www.paxtoniscool.com you can find Paxton's Tactical Gear Cleaner, a military-grade cleaner for police and army helmets ($7.95) and other equipment. Some riding helmets' labels warn against using alcohol-based cleaners because of their drying effects. If yours does, check the ingredients of any deodorizer you're considering to make sure it isn't alcohol-based.
Deodorizers "are not miracle products," Tabitha warns, "but they do help." If your helmet lining is particularly smelly, you may have to use a lot of spray or several applications. Be careful not to over-saturate, Tabitha cautions. Not only will you have difficulty getting the lining dry again, but you may degrade the glue, fabric, and liner material of the helmet. (If your skin is sensitive, you may also increase the risk of an allergic reaction.)
For major disasters—say you stored your helmet in your tack trunk so wet and for so long that fungus worthy of a biology experiment has flourished in it—Charles Owen makes a Hat Cleaner ($10.95), and Helmet Fresh has a big brother called Helmet Fresh Cleaner ($4.95). Both products are designed for heavy-duty cleaning, but with the delicate nature of rider-headgear linings in mind. Still, check the label. And always be sure to test a product on a small area of your helmet liner to make sure it doesn't cause any damage.
When all else fails, you may need professional help. Search online for "clean sports gear" and you'll find companies such as Northwest Clean Gear (www.nwcleangear.com) in Portland, Oregon that charge around $10 to $25 to clean a helmet (in many cases with a washing machine that is designed specifically for sports equipment). The downside: You'll have to ship your helmet to them. Most such companies specialize in football, hockey, and lacrosse-type helmets; make sure before you entrust your helmet to one that it's familiar with the countless fabrics and materials on the in- and outside of today's riding helmets, and to confirm that its process won't cause damage.
And What About the Outside?
Dust and dirt, especially if turned to mud by rain, mean the outside of your helmet can get yucky, too. And cleaning can be a challenge because coverings, like linings, come in an assortment of fabrics—synthetic suede, velvet, satin, silk, leather, plastic, microfiber—that some cleaners can damage. So you're always safest checking and abiding by the helmet manufacturer's cleaning recommendations. (Failure to heed warnings could damage your helmet, reduce its effectiveness, and void your warranty). If you've lost the information your helmet came with, you can probably find care instructions on its maker's Web site.
A few standard tips: Alcohol-based cleaners can damage vinyl, so you're better off using a soft cloth dampened with plain water. For microfiber or velvet, allow mud to dry thoroughly, then whisk away with a clean, medium-stiff-bristle brush. Or you can clean and revive microfiber with a suede block (available at shoe-repair shops for less than $10) or a clean, dry sponge. To perk up velvet's nap, hold the helmet over the steam from a pot of boiling water (protecting your hand with an oven mitt or towel); it'll soon look good as new!
This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.