The rapid spread of the contagious Omicron variant has prompted many people to try and upgrade to a higher quality medical mask. But that’s easier said than done.
Anyone who has bought a mask online or in stores has discovered a dizzying array of different shapes, sizes and colors. Knowing which mask to choose and making sure it’s not a forgery requires the detective skills of a forensic investigator. And once you’ve chosen one, it’s still a gamble; many people find that they have ordered a mask that is too big or too small for their face or just doesn’t fit right.
“Nobody made this easy, that’s for sure,” said Bill Taubner, president of Bona Fide Masks, the exclusive distributor in the United States 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 hazardous particles. Under a microscope, the filters look like dense clumps of tangled fibers that trap even the hardest-to-catch particles that can bounce around and escape the fibers of cloth masks. High-quality medical masks also have an electrostatically charged filter that helps attract and retain particles.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a shortage of high-quality medical masks. Now the problem is that there are so many different masks on the market that it is difficult to know which ones have been tested and certified by government agencies and which are counterfeit. We interviewed mask manufacturers, importers, public health officials and independent researchers for advice on choosing a medical mask. Here’s a guide.
Choose your mask style.
Masks come in different shapes and sizes. You will find “cup” style masks, “duck bill” masks and “flat-fold” masks. The best mask is the one that fits snugly on your face and is comfortable. Start by ordering small quantities and try different styles to find the best one 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 when you put it on and it doesn’t seal your face,” said Nicole Vars McCullough, vice president of personal safety at the 3M Company, a global mask manufacturer.
The N95 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 headbands – two elastic bands that wrap behind the head. If a mask that claims to be an N95 has ear loops, it is most likely a fake. The CDC has a guide to detecting fake N95s.
The KN95 is similar to the N95, but has ear loops and is made to meet Chinese standards for medical masks. Some people prefer them for comfort and because they come in smaller sizes. While you can find legitimate KN95 masks, the supply chain is full of counterfeits and there is little regulation or oversight of the product. A study found that 60 percent of the stock of KN95s in the United States is counterfeit. Keep reading for ways to spot them.
The KF94 is a high-quality mask that folds flat and is made in Korea. It is specially designed for the consumer market. The KF stands for “Korean Filter” and the 94 means it filters 94 percent of particulates. The masks are strictly regulated in Korea, which reduces the risk of counterfeiting. However, some fake masks made in China may be labeled KF94, so buyers should still do their homework.
Masks for children
The mask market is particularly tricky for parents trying to find masks for children. No N95 mask is approved for children, so any mask that claims to be an N95 for children is fake. However, N95s are available in S/M sizes which may work for some older kids. KN95 and KF94 masks have styles made for kids, so once you’ve found one, 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 typically work directly with manufacturers approved by NIOSH or their distributors, so if you find an N95 mask in a major store, you can rest assured that you’re getting the real thing. It’s a good idea to check manufacturers’ websites to see where they sell their products and who their authorized distributors are, said Dr. McCullough. 3M has a special place on its website to help consumers identify fake masks.
Finding a reliable mask on Amazon is trickier as you’ll see legit masks mixed in with fakes, although the differences won’t always be obvious. If you must use Amazon, try shopping directly at mask makers’ on-site stores such as 3M or Kimberly-Clark. (You can usually find a link to a maker’s online store right below a product name.)
When purchasing a KF94 on Amazon, check the packaging carefully to make sure it is made in Korea and has the required labeling (see below for details). Aaron Collins, an engineer who routinely tests masks and has gained YouTube followings 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 to find their websites to see where they are sold. For example, Happy Life lists its five US distributors on its homepage.
Sometimes you can find N95 and KN95 masks for sale directly on a mask maker’s website, such as Demetech and Armbrust USA. You can also search for companies that are exclusive distributors of KN95 masks, such as Bona Fide masks. The nonprofit Project N95 is also a reliable place to shop.
Check labels and print.
Legitimate N95s and KN95s must have specific text on the front of the mask. While you may find one in a fun color, masks that are printed with fancy designs or have no text stamped on them are likely fake.
Your N95 should be stamped with “NIOSH” as well as the company name, model and lot numbers, and something called a “TC approval” number, which can be used to look up the mask in a list with approved. The CDC has created an infographic that shows you the prints to look for on your N95.
A legitimate KN95 must also be stamped with text, including the manufacturer’s name, model, and “GB2626-2019”, which is a reference to a quality control standard approved by the Chinese government.
No text will be stamped on the KF94, but the packaging should read “Made in Korea” and the name of the product, manufacturer and distributor. The package also has an expiration date and a lot number. (Medical masks with an electrostatic charge all have an expiration date.) If your mask comes from a Korean importer, the information on the packaging is in Korean, but many companies have started making English-language packaging.
Use trusted sources.
A number of resources have sprung up to help people in the mask buying process. Project N95 is a non-profit organization known for vetting its mask suppliers. mr. Collins, the Mask Nerd, has created a number of lists and resources for mask buyers. You can watch his Twitter feed, his YouTube channel, and a spreadsheet he created of nearly 450 different masks and how they performed in his tests.
Mr. Collins is perhaps best known for his list of children’s masks. While no N95 mask for children is approved in the United States, mask makers in China and Korea have made KN95s and KF94s for children, including some with kid-friendly colors and prints. Mr. Collins made a “prime for parents” video about finding a high quality mask for kids with over 100,000 views.
“I had stopped testing masks,” said Mr. Collins, noting that he receives no compensation for his work. “But I came out of retirement to make the children’s video. Unfortunately, the only place I’ve seen a list of test data is me.”
Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The New York Times, has a guide to buying medical masks, one to buying children’s masks, and a list of 12 red flags that could indicate that your mask is a fake.
Do your research.
It’s not easy, but the CDC has a few lists you can use to confirm that a mask has been vetted. A word of warning: if you can’t find a particular mask, make sure you’ve looked it up properly. For example, a Gerson N95 mask will not be found under the letter “G.” It is listed under “L” because the full name of the company that makes it is Louis M. Gerson.
For N95 masks, visit the CDC’s alphabetical list of NIOSH-approved respirators. You can also look up the TC approval number using the certified equipment list.
For KN95 masks, you can use two checklists from the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA created these lists early in the pandemic, when the agency issued an emergency use authorization that allowed health professionals to use KN95 masks due to a shortage of N95s. Now that the N95 provision is sufficient, the agency has revoked the authorization for these employees, but other people can still use KN95s. While the list is a bit outdated now, finding your mask on it gives the reassurance that it’s less likely to be counterfeit — with the caveat that there’s no longer any official U.S. oversight of any of these companies.
Use this FDA listing to find KN95 masks made in China, and this listing for KN95 masks made in other countries.