The rapid spread of the infectious Omicron variant has prompted many people to try upgrading to a quality medical mask. But this is easier said than done.
Anyone who has shopped for a mask online or in stores has discovered an amazing selection in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Knowing which mask to pick and making sure it’s not fake requires the spying skills of a forensic investigator. And once you pick one, it’s still a gamble; Many people discover that they have ordered a mask that is too big, too small for their face, or doesn’t fit well.
“No one has facilitated this, that’s for sure,” said Bill Taubner, president of Bona Fide Masks, the exclusive US distributor of both 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 N95s, KN95s, and KF94s — are made with layers of high-tech filter material that trap at least 94 to 95 percent of the most dangerous particles. Under a microscope, the filters look like dense forests of tangled fibers that capture even the hard-to-trap particles that can bounce off and escape from the fibers of cloth masks. Quality medical masks also contain an electrostatically charged filter that helps attract and trap particles.
Early in the epidemic, there was a shortage of high-quality medical masks. The problem now is that there are so many different masks on sale, and it’s hard to know which masks have been tested and approved by government agencies and which are fake. We interviewed mask manufacturers, importers, public health officials, and independent researchers for advice on medical mask selection. Here is a guide.
Choose your mask style.
Masks come in different shapes and sizes. You’ll find ‘cup’ style masks, ‘duck bill’ masks, and ‘Flat flat’ masks. The best mask is one that fits snugly to your face and is comfortable. Start by ordering small amounts and experiment with different styles to find the one that works best for your face. Many masks are described as “one size fits most”. But some come in small or larger 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 Faris McCullough, vice president of personal safety at 3M, the largest US maker of N95 masks. .
the N95 The respirator 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 head straps – two elastic bands that go behind the head. If a mask claiming to be N95 has ear loops, it is most likely a fake. The CDC has evidence for spotting counterfeit N95s.
the KN95 It is similar to N95, but has earloops and is made to meet Chinese standards for medical masks. Some people prefer it for convenience and because it comes in smaller sizes. While you can find legit KN95 masks, the supply chain is riddled with counterfeit products and there is little regulation or oversight of the product. One study found that 60 percent of KN95s on display in the United States are fake. Keep reading to find out how to spot it.
the KF94 This is a high quality flat fold mask made in Korea. It is specifically designed for the consumer market. KF stands for “Korean Filter,” and the number 94 means it filters out 94 percent of particles. Masks are highly regulated in Korea, which reduces the risk of counterfeiting. However, some fake masks made in China may be named KF94, so shoppers still need to do their homework.
The market for masks is especially challenging for parents who are trying to find masks for children. The N95 mask for children has not been approved, so any mask that claims to be N95 for children is a fake. However, N95s come in S/M sizes that may work for some older children. KN95 and KF94 masks have patterns designed for kids, so once you’ve found a mask, you’ll need to go through the same checking process you would for an adult mask, using the links below.
Buy from a reputable supplier.
Major retailers like Home Depot and Lowes usually work directly with NIOSH-certified manufacturers or distributors, so if you find an N95 mask at a major retailer, you can be confident you’re getting the real thing. Dr. McCullough said it’s a good idea to check manufacturers’ websites to see where they sell their products and who their authorized distributors are. 3M has a place on its website to help consumers spot fake masks.
Finding a reliable mask on Amazon is even more difficult because you’ll see legitimate masks mixed with fakes, although the differences won’t always be obvious. If you must use Amazon, try shopping directly at in-site stores for mask makers like 3M or Kimberly-Clark. (You can usually find a link to an online maker store just below the product name.)
If you’re buying the KF94 from Amazon, look closely at the packaging to make sure it’s made in Korea and includes the required labels (see below for more details). Aaron Collins, an engineer who routinely tests masks and who has gained a YouTube following as “Mask Nerd,” recommends buying KF94s from Korean beauty product importers like Be Healthy or KMact. Once you know the names of a few KF94 manufacturers, you can try to find their websites to see where they sell them. For example, Happy Life lists its five US distributors on its homepage.
You can sometimes find N95 and KN95 masks for sale directly on the website of a mask maker, such as Demetech and Armbrust USA. You can also search for exclusive distributors of KN95 masks, such as Bona Fide Masks. The non-profit website Project N95 is also a trusted place to shop.
Check the labels and print.
Legitimate N95s and KN95s must have specific text stamped on the front of the mask. Although you may find one with a fun color, masks that are printed with fancy designs or that don’t have text printed on them may be fake.
Your N95 must be stamped with “NIOSH,” along with the company name, model number and part numbers, and something called a “TC Approval” number, which can be used to look up the mask in a list of approved ones. The CDC has created a graph showing you which print to look for on your N95.
Legitimate KN95 should also be stamped with text, including the name of the manufacturer, model, and “GB2626-2019”, which is a reference to the quality control standard approved by the Chinese government.
The KF94 will not be stamped with text, but the packaging must say “Made in Korea” and include the name of the producer, manufacturer, and distributor. The package will also have an expiration date and a batch number printed on it. (Medical masks with an electrostatic charge all have expiration dates.) If your mask is from a Korean importer, the information on the packaging will be in Korean, but many companies have begun creating English packaging.
Use reliable sources.
A number of resources have sprung up to help people navigate the mask buying process. Project N95 is a nonprofit organization known for vetting mask suppliers. Mr. Collins, The Mask Nerd, has created a number of lists and resources for mask buyers. You can check his site Twitter feedHis YouTube channel and spreadsheet he created for nearly 450 different masks and how they performed in his tests.
Mr. Collins may be best known for his list of children’s masks. Although there is no N95 mask for children approved in the United States, mask makers in China and Korea have created KN95s and KF94s for children, including some in child-friendly colors and prints. Mr. Collins created a Primer for Parents video about finding a high-quality mask for kids that has garnered over 100,000 views.
“I have retired from the mask test,” Collins said, noting that he is not receiving any compensation for his work. “But I came out of retirement to do a video for kids. The only place I saw the list of test data unfortunately was me.”
Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The New York Times, has a guide to buying medical masks, one to buying kids’ masks and a list of 12 red flags that might indicate your mask is fake.
Do your research.
This isn’t easy, but the CDC has a few lists you can use to confirm your mask check. Warning note: If you can’t find a specific mask, make sure you searched for it the right way. For example, the Gerson N95 mask will not be found below the letter “G.” It is listed under an “L” because the full name of the company that makes it is Louis M. Gerson.
For N95 masks, go to the CDC’s Alphabetical List of NIOSH Approved Respirators. You can also look up the TC approval number using the list of approved equipment.
For KN95 masks, you can use my Food and Drug Administration checklist. The Food and Drug Administration created these lists early in the pandemic, when the agency issued an emergency use authorization that allowed health workers to use KN95 masks due to a shortage of N95s. Now that the N95 supply is appropriate, the agency has revoked the permission granted to these workers, but other people can still use the KN95s. Although the list is a bit outdated, finding your mask on it adds reassurance that it’s unlikely to be a copycat—with the caveat that there is no longer any official oversight from the United States for any of these companies.
Use this FDA list to find KN95 masks made in China, and this list for KN95 masks made in other countries.