The rapid spread of the infectious variant of Omicron has prompted many people to try and upgrade to a better quality medical mask. But that’s easier said than done.
Anyone who has purchased a mask online or in stores has discovered a dizzying array in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Knowing which mask to choose and making sure it’s not a counterfeit requires the detective skills of a forensic investigator. And once you’ve picked one, it’s always a gamble; many people find that they have ordered a mask that is too big or too small for their face or that simply does not fit.
“Nobody made it easy, that’s for sure,” said Bill Taubner, president of Bona Fide Masks, the exclusive U.S. distributor of Powecom and Harley KN95 masks, which come from China. “A lot of people end up doing a lot of research.”
Unlike cloth masks, high-quality medical masks – called N95, KN95 and KF94 – are made with layers of high-tech filter material that trap at least 94-95% of the most dangerous particles. Under the microscope, the filters look like dense forests of tangled fibers that capture even the most difficult-to-trap particles that can bounce and escape from the fibers of cloth masks. High quality medical masks also have an electrostatically charged filter that helps attract and trap particles.
At the start of the pandemic, high-quality medical masks were in short supply. Now, the problem is that there are so many different masks for sale that it’s hard to know which have been tested and certified by government agencies and which are counterfeit. Test studies have revealed that many counterfeit masks do not even offer the same level of protection as a cloth mask. We interviewed mask manufacturers, importers, public health officials and independent researchers for advice on choosing a medical mask. Here is a guide.
Choose your mask style.
Masks come in different shapes and sizes. You will find “cut” style masks, “duckbill” masks and “flat” masks. The best mask is one that fits your face perfectly and is comfortable. Start by ordering in small quantities and experimenting with different styles to find the one that best suits your face. Many masks are described as “one size fits all”. But some come in small or large sizes. “You don’t get the full benefit of a respirator if you put it on and it doesn’t form a seal on your face,” said Nicole Vars McCullough, 3M corporate vice president for personal safety, the America’s largest manufacturer of N95 masks. .
the N95 The respirator mask is regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost all N95 masks use headbands – two elastic bands that wrap behind the head. If a mask claiming to be an N95 has ear loops, it’s most likely a fake. The CDC has a guide to spotting fake N95s.
the KN95 is similar to the N95, but has ear loops and is designed to meet Chinese standards for medical masks. Some people prefer them for their comfort and because they are smaller in size. Although you can find legitimate KN95 masks, the supply chain is riddled with counterfeits and there is little regulation or oversight of the product. A study found that 60% of the KN95 supply in the United States is counterfeit. Keep reading to find out how to spot them.
the KF94 is a high quality mask that folds flat and is made in Korea. It is designed specifically for the consumer market. The KF stands for “Korean filter” and the 94 means that it filters out 94% of particles. Masks are heavily regulated in Korea, reducing the risk of counterfeits. However, some fake masks made in China may be labeled KF94, so buyers still need to do their homework.
Masks for children
The mask market is particularly tricky for parents looking to find masks for children. No N95 mask has been approved for children, so any mask that claims to be an N95 for children is a fake. However, the N95s come in S/M sizes which might fit some older kids. Both KN95 and KF94 masks have styles designed for children, so once you find one you should go through the same verification process you would use for an adult mask, using the links below.
Buy from a reputable supplier.
Major retailers like Home Depot and Lowes typically work directly with NIOSH-approved manufacturers or their distributors, so if you find an N95 mask at a major retail store, you can be sure you’re getting the real one. It’s a good idea to check manufacturers’ websites to see where they sell their products and who their authorized distributors are, Dr. McCullough said. 3M has a dedicated area on its website to help consumers spot fake masks.
Finding a reliable mask on Amazon is trickier because you’ll see legitimate masks mixed in with knockoffs, although the differences aren’t always obvious. If you must use Amazon, try shopping directly at on-site stores of mask makers like 3M or Kimberly-Clark. (You can usually find a link to a manufacturer’s online store just below a product’s name.)
If you’re buying a KF94 from Amazon, carefully examine the packaging to make sure it’s made in Korea and includes the required labeling (see below for details). Aaron Collins, an engineer who regularly tests masks and has gained popularity on YouTube as “Mask Nerd”, recommends buying KF94s from Korean beauty importers like Be Healthy or KMact. Once you know the names of a few KF94 manufacturers, you can try finding their websites to find out where they are sold. For example, Happy Life lists its five US distributors on its homepage.
You can sometimes find N95 and KN95 masks for sale directly from a mask manufacturer’s site, such as Demetech and Armbrust USA. You can also look for companies that are exclusive distributors of KN95 masks, such as Bona Fide Masks. The non-profit site Project N95 is also a reliable place to shop.
Check labels and printing.
Legitimate N95s and KN95s must have specific text stamped on the front of the mask. While you can find one in a fun color, masks that are printed with fancy designs or have no text on them are probably fake.
Your N95 should be stamped “NIOSH”, along with the company name, model and batch numbers, and something called a “TC approval” number, which can be used to look up the mask on a list of those approved. The CDC has created an infographic showing you what printing to look for on your N95.
A legitimate KN95 should also be stamped with text, including the manufacturer’s name, model, and “GB2626-2019,” which refers to a quality control standard approved by the Chinese government.
The KF94 will not be stamped with text, but the packaging must state “Made in Korea” and include the product name, manufacturer, and distributor name. The package will also have an expiration date and lot number printed on it. (Medical masks that carry an electrostatic charge all have expiration dates.) If your mask is from a Korean importer, the packaging information will be in Korean, but many companies have started creating packaging in English. .
Use reliable sources.
A number of resources have sprung up to help people navigate the mask buying process. Project N95 is a non-profit organization known for policing its mask suppliers. Mr. Collins, the Mask Nerd, has created a number of lists and resources for mask shoppers. You can check out his Twitter feed, his YouTube channel, and a spreadsheet he created with nearly 450 different masks and how they performed in his tests.
Mr. Collins is perhaps best known for his list of masks for children. Although there is no N95 mask for children approved in the United States, mask manufacturers in China and Korea have created KN95 and KF94 for children, some with colors and prints adapted to children. Mr Collins has created a “parents primer” video on finding a high quality face mask for kids which has over 100,000 views.
“I had retired from mask testing,” Mr Collins said, noting that he received no compensation for his work. “But I came out of retirement to do the kids video. The only place I’ve seen a list of test data is unfortunately me.
Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The New York Times, offers a guide to buying medical masks, one to buying masks for kids, and a list of 12 red flags that could signal your mask is a counterfeit.
Do your research.
It’s not easy, but the CDC has a few lists you can use to confirm that a mask has been verified. A note of warning: if you can’t find a particular mask, make sure you’ve searched for it the right way around. For example, a Gerson N95 mask will not be found under the letter “G”. It is listed as “L” because the full name of the company that makes it is Louis M. Gerson.
For N95 masks, access the CDC’s alphabetical listing of NIOSH-approved respirators. You can also find the TC approval number using the list of certified equipment.
For KN95 masks, you can use two Food and Drug Administration checklists. The FDA created these lists at the start of the pandemic, when the agency issued an emergency use authorization that allowed health workers to use KN95 masks due to an N95 shortage. Now that the supply of N95 is sufficient, the agency has revoked authorization for these workers, but other people can still use KN95s. Although the list is now a bit outdated, finding your mask on it reassures it’s less likely to be counterfeited – with the caveat that there’s no official US oversight for any of these companies anymore.
Use this FDA listing to find KN95 masks made in China, and this listing for KN95 masks made in other countries.