The rapid spread of the Omicron infection variant has led many people to try to upgrade to a better medical mask. But it’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 is not a forgery requires the detection skills of a forensic investigator. And once you choose 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 them.
“No one has made it easy, that’s for sure,” said Bill Taubner, president of Bona Fide Masks, the exclusive distributor in the United States for Powecom and Harley KN95 masks from China. “A lot of people end up doing a lot of research.”
Unlike fabric masks, high-quality medical masks – called N95, KN95 and KF94 – are made with layers of high-tech filter material that captures at least 94 to 95 percent of the riskiest particles. Under the microscope, the filters look like dense forests of tangled fibers that capture even the most difficult particles that can bounce off and escape from fabric mask fibers. High quality medical masks also have an electrostatically charged filter that helps attract and trap particles.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a shortage of high-quality medical masks. The problem is that there are so many different masks for sale that it’s hard to know which ones have been tested and certified by government agencies and which are counterfeit. We asked mask manufacturers, importers, public health officials and independent researchers for advice on choosing a medical mask. Here’s how.
Choose a mask style.
Masks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here you will find “cup” style masks, “duck banknote” masks and “flat-fold” masks. The best mask is the one that fits close to the face and is comfortable. Start by ordering in small quantities and try different styles to find the best one for your face. Many masks are described as “one size fits most”. However, some come in small or larger sizes. “If you put on a respirator, you won’t get all the benefits and seals on your face,” said Nicole Vars McCullough, vice president of personal safety at 3M Company, a global mask manufacturer.
The N95 The respirator mask is regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost all N95 masks use head straps – two elastic straps that wrap around the head. If the mask that claims to be N95 has eartips, it is most likely fake. The CDC has a guide for detecting fake N95s.
The KN95 is similar to the N95, but has ear straps and is made to meet Chinese standards for medical masks. Some people prefer them for convenience and because they come in smaller sizes. Although you may find legitimate KN95 masks, the supply chain is riddled with counterfeits and there is little regulation or supervision of the product. One study found that 60 percent of KN95’s offerings in the United States were counterfeit. Keep reading to find them.
The KF94 is a high quality mask that folds flat and is made in Korea. It is designed specifically for the consumer market. KF means “Korean filter” and 94 means it filters 94 percent of the particles. Masks are strictly regulated in Korea, which reduces the risk of counterfeiting. However, some fake masks made in China may be marked KF94, so shoppers still have to do their homework.
Masks for children
The mask market is especially complicated for parents trying to find masks for children. No N95 mask has been approved for children, so any mask that claims to be N95 for children is fake. However, the N95 comes in S / M sizes that could work for some older children. KN95 and KF94 masks have styles created for children, so once you find one, you must go through the same inspection process you would use for an adult mask, using the links below.
Shop from a reputable supplier.
Large retailers like Home Depot and Lowes usually work directly with NIOSH-approved manufacturers or their distributors, so if you find an N95 mask in a large retail store, you can be sure you’re getting the real thing. It’s a good idea to check the manufacturers’ websites to see where they sell their products and who their authorized distributors are, said Dr. McCullough. 3M has a dedicated site on its website to help consumers detect fake masks.
Finding a reliable mask on Amazon is more difficult because you will see legitimate masks mixed with fakes, although the differences will not always be obvious. If you need to use Amazon, try shopping directly at local mask manufacturers’ stores, such as 3M or Kimberly-Clark. (You can usually find the link to the manufacturer’s online store directly under the product name.)
If you are buying a KF94 on Amazon, look carefully at the packaging to make sure it is made in Korea and contains the required markings (see below for more details). Aaron Collins, an engineer who routinely tests masks and who has gained fans on YouTube as “Mask Nerd”, recommends buying KF94 from Korean importers of cosmetics such as Be Healthy or KMact. Once you have learned the names of several KF94 manufacturers, you can try to find their websites and find out where they are selling. For example, Happy Life lists five US distributors on its home page.
Sometimes you can find N95 and KN95 masks for sale directly on the mask manufacturer’s websites, 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 non-profit Project N95 site is also a reliable place to shop.
Check labels and printing.
Legitimate N95 and KN95 must have a specific text embossed on the front of the mask. Although you can find a mask in a fun color, masks that are printed with fancy patterns or do not have text embossed on them are probably fake.
Your N95 should be stamped “NIOSH” as well as the company name, model and lot number, and something called a “TC approval number” that can be used to find the mask on the approved list. The CDC has created an infographic showing the print you should be looking for on your N95.
The legal KN95 should also be marked 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.
KF94 will not be marked with text, but should be labeled “Made in Korea” and should include the product name, manufacturer, and distributor name. The expiration date and batch number will also be printed on the package. (All medical masks that carry an electrostatic charge have an expiration date.) If your mask comes from a Korean importer, the information on the packaging will be in Korean, but many companies have begun creating packaging in English.
Use trusted sources.
A number of resources have emerged to help people navigate the process of buying masks. Project N95 is a non-profit organization known for screening its mask suppliers. Mr. Collins, Mask Nerd, has created a number of lists and resources for mask buyers. You can look at his Twitter feed, his YouTube channel and the spreadsheet he created, with almost 450 different masks and how they turned out in his tests.
Mr. Collins may be best known for his list of children’s masks. While there is no N95 children’s mask approved in the United States in the United States, mask manufacturers in China and Korea have developed KN95 and KF94 for children, including some with colors and prints suitable for children. Mr. Collins has created a “parenting foundation” video about finding a high-quality children’s mask that has more than 100,000 views.
“I’m done testing the masks,” Mr. Collins said, not paying any rewards for his work. “But I retired to make a video for the kids.” Unfortunately, the only place where I saw the 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 for buying baby masks, and a list of 12 red flags that may indicate that your mask is counterfeit.
Do your research.
It’s not easy, but the CDC has several lists that you can use to confirm that the mask has been checked. Warning: If you do not find a specific mask, make sure you have found it correctly. For example, you will not find the Gerson N95 mask 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, refer to the alphabetical list of NIOSH-approved respirators in the CDC. You can also search for the TC approval number using the list of certified devices.
You can use two checklists from the Food and Drug Administration for KN95 masks. The FDA created these lists at the beginning of the pandemic when the agency issued an emergency use permit, which allowed medical professionals to use KN95 masks due to N95 deficiency. Now that the supply of N95 is sufficient, the agency has withdrawn the authorization from these workers, but other people can still use KN95. While the list is now a bit outdated, finding your mask on it adds reassurance that it is less likely to be counterfeit – provided there is no longer any official US oversight of 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.