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As the pandemic charges on, it’s looking like face masks won’t be disappearing any time in the near future. In fact, now may be the time to upgrade your mask to something more protective, especially as new variants—like the highly contagious omicron variant—emerge and evolve. Reusable cloth masks, which helped to stop the spread of the virus during the earlier parts of the pandemic, aren’t as effective in protecting against omicron, according to health experts.
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Because of this, experts are now calling for the use of upgraded masks to protect yourself—this means wearing N95 or KN95 masks that can filter up to 95% of particles in the air. And while these protective masks are accessible to buy at major retailers and online distributors, there are a lot of fakes out there, especially when it comes to the popular KN95 masks. The CDC estimates that about 60% of KN95 respirators in the U.S. are counterfeit and fail to meet strict standards set by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
To maneuver the market of N95 and KN95 masks with more confidence, there are some tell-tale signs that can help you steer clear of fraudulent masks. Here are a few tips from the CDC and other healthcare experts for avoiding counterfeit masks.
►Related: Biden administration to ship free 400 million N95 masks across the US starting this week
How to tell if an N95 mask is counterfeit
Look for the NIOSH stamp of approval
The most important thing to look for in N95 masks specifically is that the respirator has been tested and certified by NIOSH. There should be an approval number on the filtering respirator and “NIOSH” must be spelled correctly.
Both the mask and its packaging should be labeled “NIOSH-approved,” Dr. Stella Hines, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says. “These masks must meet a specific set of criteria to guarantee that they provide the expected level of protection and performance,” Dr. Hines explains. “A formal fit-testing procedure ensures that there is an adequate seal to the face.”
You can also reference the manufacturer and approval number from the N95 mask to ensure it’s listed on the NIOSH-Certified Equipment List. That way, you can be certain that it meets NIOSH standards.
N95s never have ear loops
Legitimate N95 masks do not have ear loops—they have straps or a headband instead—and no other decorative accents. N95 respirators use headbands that secure around the head to ensure a proper fit to the face.
Look out for the price
Jim Churchman, vice president, Procurement and Supply Chain at Duke University Health System recommends keeping an eye out for any N95 masks that are significantly more expensive than the average respirator or ones that are available in suspiciously large quantities. He says that both of these are strong indicators of potential fraud, given that demand is high and that legitimate manufacturers won’t charge a premium during a pandemic.
NIOSH-approved N95 kids’ masks don’t exist
Looking for N95 masks for kids? Unfortunately, N95s are essentially non-existent in kids’ sizes due to NIOSH only regulating products for adults, as parenting staff writer Janelle Randazza reports.
While an N95 mask might not be an option for your children, protective KN95 or KF94 masks designed for smaller faces or kids are an alternative solution. Many of them are made from the same brands as N95 masks—such as Powecom and WellBefore—and are sold by reputable distributors like Bona Fide Masks and Project N95.
How to tell if a KN95 mask is counterfeit
KN95s cannot be NIOSH-approved
While NIOSH tests and certifies N95 masks, they don’t approve KN95 masks, KF94 masks or any other respirator products that may receive international certification. If a retailer or manufacturer claims the KN95 masks are NIOSH-approved, you’ve most likely encountered a counterfeit product.
Look for the KN95 standard printed on the mask
In 2020, the FDA granted emergency-use authorization (EUA) for some KN95 masks due to N95 masks supply being scarce. This included respirators and filters certified under China’s standards: GB 2626-2006 or the most recent GB 2626-2019. Look for either of these codes printed on the KN95 mask, as this could help identify if a mask is counterfeit or not.
If it feels questionable, it probably is
While sorting through N95 masks is more straightforward, shopping for KN95 masks can be more confusing. If you really aren’t sure about any kind of mask from an unknown retailer, ask yourself the questions that you would when encountering other potentially counterfeit products: Is the manufacturer making false claims about certifications? Does the packaging look neat and intact or does it look like it’s been tampered with? Are there positive or negative reviews to look into? If something feels questionable, it most likely is.
Where to buy real N95 and KN95 masks
Shopping for N95 or KN95 masks can feel daunting, especially when retailers like Amazon house thousands of unknown brands and manufacturers of N95 and KN95 masks.
“The absence of US government oversight of claims of filtration quality other than for the NIOSH and ASTM authorized coverings has led to widespread confusion about quality,” Project N95 executive director Anne Miller said in a press release from the brand.
One main method to ensure you’re purchasing legitimate respirator masks is by buying from retailers you know and trust. Retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot sell NIOSH-approved N95 masks for many different uses, including for industrial or home improvement needs. Those N95 masks are still certified to provide efficient filtration, so you can buy and use them as needed. You can also find N95 respirators from pharmacies like CVS as well.
If you’re looking for more options for N95 masks or want to try KN95 or KF94 masks, you may want to look to an online distributor that vets personal protective equipment like masks. Places we’d recommend shopping from include Project N95, Bona Fide Masks and WellBefore as they all work to provide affordable, accessible and legitimate PPE to those who need it. Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, says she uses Project N95 herself.
Bona Fide Masks
The Home Depot
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