11/21/2012 16:17 EST | Updated 01/21/2013 05:12 EST

5 tips when buying a protective helmet

From skiing to biking to riding a motorcycle, many sports have their pitfalls, and safety advocates recommend wearing a helmet to protect yourself from serious injuries while at play.

While hockey helmets are required to meet the Canadian Standards Association's requirements, other helmets, such as those for skiing, aren't governed by mandatory Canadian safety standards.

With no established Canadian standard for ski-helmet safety, how can consumers ensure they're getting enough protection when shopping for protective head gear?

Here are key things consumers should keep in mind:

1. How does it fit?

A snug fit is critical when choosing a helmet, and consumers should spend extra time to make sure that it feels comfortable on their head before walking to the cash register, said Raynald Marchand, Canada Safety Council's general manager.

He recommends that people try on the helmet and wear it for a period of time to ensure it fits correctly.

"It should fit snug. You should use the strap, and you should keep it on your head for a good 20 minutes," he said. "And the reason for that is it has to be comfortable… If it doesn't fit properly, then you're probably going to loosen up the strap because it's creating some pressure points. And now it's not going to protect you properly, because it's not on properly."

2. Does the helmet meet established safety standards?

Each type of helmet has different legislated standards it must meet. For example, hockey helmets in Canada, under Health Canada's Hazardous Products Act, must meet the Canadian Standards Association's safety requirements, according to CSA spokesman Anthony Toderian. Ski helmets, however, are not governed by any mandatory Canadian safety standards.

In general, consumers should check if the helmet meets at least one established guideline, said Toderian.

"Stay away from helmets that have no certification markings whatsoever... Buy a helmet that is uncertified, and it may not afford you any protection at all. I mean, it could be the same as wearing a toque or a hat. It may be just a skinny plastic liner over some cheap foam," he said.

Health Canada recommends that when buying a bicycle helmet, for example, consumers check inside for stickers from one or more of the following organizations:

- Canadian Standard Association

- Snell Memorial Foundation

- American National Standard Institute

- American Society for Testing and Materials

- British Standards Institute

- Standards Association of Australia

3. How will you be using this helmet?

While most helmets provide a protective shell for the brain and skull, the effectiveness of a particular helmet depends on whether its design matches the proposed activity, says Marchand.

For example, a skier that could be shushing down the slopes at 50 kilometres per hour will need a helmet designed for protection from a high-impact fall. But the styrofoam and other materials inside the helmet can only be crushed only once, so if the helmet takes a hit, it must be replaced, said Marchand.

In hockey — where a player can expect to be smashed into the boards or take a spill on the ice — you need a helmet designed to withstand repeated blows. However, that helmet design will offer less cushioning, he added.

"Everything is a compromise. You can't change the kid's helmet everytime he hits the board, right? But in skiing, that may not be the case," Marchand said.

Temperature and weather can also have an impact on the helmet's materials. For skiers in sub-zero temperatures, they will need a helmet that will provide warmth, protection from the wind and absorb the impact of a fall in a cold environment, Marchand said.

The hot sun on some slopes can also affect the strength of the plastic shell, he added.

"The sun can be very strong, and that can have an effect on the helmet," Marchand said. "How much you sweat can also have an impact on the inner [layers] of that helmet. So they have to be replaced periodically, even if you never hit it."

3. Who will be using the helmet?

Once you've selected the right helmet for what, and where, you will be using it, it's important to choose one that suits the athlete himself. His or her skill level will dictate what kind of a beating the helmet will need to withstand.

"If I have a young kid that's learning to ski on the bunny hill, then a helmet that absorbs less overall energy but will take multiple hits would be useful … If I have a teenager that's doing acrobatics, I'm going to want a helmet that's going to absorb a lot more energy. Even though it may mean that if he uses it, I'm going to have to buy a new one."

How well the equipment is likely to be cared for will also influence how durable the helmet needs to be, said Marchand.

"If you get a teenager who just tosses his helmet in the corner when he gets into the ski lodge, then maybe that helmet won't last more than two or three years," he said.

5. How much does the helmet cost?

If the price tag on the helmet seems too good to be true, it likely is.

While the cost of helmets varies widely, depending on function, style and comfort, paying a relatively low amount for the equipment is a red flag, said Marchand.

"One rule of thumb is you get what you pay for, typically. So, if the price is really cheap, there's a pretty good chance it's not very good."

And because many helmets are designed to withstand a single impact, you should always buy it new, he added.

"You should not buy it at a garage sale or second-hand," he said.