Knowing which mask to pick and making sure it’s not a fake requires the sleuthing skills of a forensic investigator. This guide from The New York Times can help.
By Tara Parker-Pope
Published Jan. 14, 2022.
Updated Jan. 17, 2022, 7:57 a.m. ET
The fast-spread of the infectious Omicron variant has prompted many people to try to upgrade to a higher-quality mask. But that’s easier said than done.
Anyone who has shopped for a mask online or in stores has discovered a dizzying array in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Knowing which mask to pick and making sure it’s not a counterfeit requires the sleuthing skills of a forensic investigator. And once you choose one, it’s still a gamble; many people discover they’ve ordered a mask that’s too big or too small for their face or just doesn’t fit right…
Unlike cloth masks, high-quality masks — called N95s, KN95s and KF94s — are made with layers of high-tech filtering material that trap at least 94 to 95 percent of the most risky particles. Under a microscope, the filters look like dense forests of tangled fibers that capture even the hardest-to-trap particles that can bounce around and escape the fibers of cloth masks. High-grade masks also have an electrostatically charged filter that helps attract and trap particles…
Choose your mask style
Masks come in different shapes and sizes. You’ll find “cup” style masks, “duck bill” masks and “flat-fold” masks. The best mask is the one that fits snugly against your 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.” But some come in small or larger sizes. “You’re not getting the full benefit of a respirator if you put it on and it’s not forming a seal to your face,” said Nicole Vars McCullough, vice president for personal safety at the 3M Company, the largest U.S. manufacturer of N95 masks.
The N95 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 head straps — 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 C.D.C. has a guide for spotting fake N95s.
The KN95 is similar to the N95, but it 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 riddled with counterfeits and there’s little regulation or oversight of the product. One study found that 60% of the supply of KN95s in the United States are 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 designed specifically for the consumer market. The KF stands for “Korean filter,” and the 94 means it filters 94 percent of particles. The masks are heavily regulated in Korea, which lowers the risk of counterfeits. However, some fake masks made in China may be labeled KF94, so shoppers still need to do their homework.
Masks for children
The mask market is particularly tricky for parents trying to find masks for children. No N95 mask has been approved for children, so any mask that claims to be an N95 for kids is a fake. However, N95s do come in S/M sizes that might work for some older children. KN95 and KF94 masks have styles made for children, so once you find one, you need to go through the same vetting process that you would use for an adult mask, using the links below.
Buy from a reputable supplier
Big 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 retail store you can be confident you’re getting the real thing. It’s a good idea to check manufacturer websites to see where they sell their products and who their authorized distributors are, Dr. McCullough said. 3M has a dedicated spot 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 counterfeits, although the differences won’t always be obvious. If you must use Amazon, try to shop directly in the on-site stores of mask makers like 3M or Kimberly-Clark. (You can usually find a link to a maker’s online store right below a product name.)
If you’re buying a KF94 on Amazon, look closely at the packaging to make sure it’s made in Korea and includes the required labeling (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 learn the names of a few KF94 manufacturers, you can try to find their websites to learn where they are sold. For instance, Happy Life lists its five U.S. distributors on its home page.
You can sometimes find N95 and KN95 masks for sale directly on the website of a mask maker, like Demetech and Armbrust USA. You can also look for companies that are exclusive distributors of KN95 masks, like Bona Fide Masks. The nonprofit site Project N95 is also a reliable place to shop. Many trusted sites are overwhelmed by demand right now, so you may encounter delays in fulfillment and shipping times.
Check labels and printing
Legitimate N95s and KN95s are required to have specific text stamped on the front of the mask. Although you may find one in a fun color, masks that are printed with fancy designs or don’t have text stamped on them are probably fake.
Your N95 should be stamped with “NIOSH,” as well as the company name, the model and lot numbers, and something called a “TC approval” number, which can be used to look up the mask on a list of approved ones. The C.D.C. has created an infographic showing you the printing to look for on your N95.
A legitimate KN95 should also be stamped with text, including the name of the manufacturer, the model, and “GB2626-2019,” which is a reference to a quality control standard approved by the Chinese government. (If your mask has a GB number that ends in 2006, which is a previous standard, just check the expiration date.)
The KF94 won’t be stamped with text, but the package should say “Made in Korea” and include the product name, manufacturer and distributor name. Each mask should be packaged individually in a flat, glossy rectangular wrapper with a textured border. The package will also have an expiration date and a lot number printed on it. (Masks that carry an electrostatic charge all have expiration dates.) If your mask comes from a Korean importer, the information on the package will be in Korean, but many companies have begun to create English-language packaging.
Do your research
It’s not easy, but the C.D.C. has a few lists you can use to confirm a mask has been vetted. A note of caution: If you don’t find a particular mask, make sure you’ve looked it up the correct way, said Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95. For instance, a Gerson N95 mask won’t be found under the letter “G.” It’s listed under “L” because the full name of the company that makes it is Louis M. Gerson.
For N95 masks, go to the C.D.C.’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 F.D.A. created these lists early in the pandemic, when the agency issued an emergency use authorization that allowed health workers to use KN95 masks because of a shortage of N95s. Now that the N95 supply is adequate, the agency has revoked the authorization for these workers, but other people can still use KN95s. While the list is now a bit outdated, finding your mask on it adds reassurance that it’s less likely to be counterfeit — with the caveat that there’s no longer official U.S. oversight for any of these firms. You’ll need to scroll down to find the list and search box.