The fast-spread of the infectious omicron variant has prompted many people to try to upgrade to a higher-quality medical 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.
“No one has made this easy, that’s for sure,” said Bill Taubner, president of Bona Fide Masks, the exclusive distributor in the United States for both Powecom and Harley KN95 masks, which are 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 filtering material that trap at least 94-95% 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 medical masks also have an electrostatically charged filter that helps attract and trap particles.
Early in the pandemic, high-quality medical and respirator-style masks were in short supply. Now the problem is there are so many different masks for sale, it’s tough to know which ones have been tested and certified by government agencies, and which are counterfeit. Testing studies have found that many counterfeit masks do not even offer the same level of protection as a cloth mask. The New York Times interviewed mask manufacturers, importers, public health officials and independent researchers for advice on choosing a quality mask. Here’s a guide.
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.
N95 respirator: The N95 respirator mask is regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known as 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.
KN95 respirator: 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.
KF94: The KF94 is a high-quality mask that folds flat and is made in South Korea. It is designed specifically for the consumer market. The KF stands for “Korean filter,” and the 94 means it filters 94% of particles. The masks are heavily regulated, 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.
Buy from a reputable supplier.
Big retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s 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, 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. 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 homepage.