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How to shop for the best KN95 face masks, according to experts

What is a KN95 face mask? We consulted medical experts on deciding whether it’s right for you — as well as where to find legitimate KN95 face masks.
MIddle age man wearing in EU obligatory FFP2/KN95/N95/ protective mask
KN95 masks are manufactured to offer 95 percent protection from particulate matter, like the N95 mask.Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images

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Americans are increasingly curious about KN95 face masks, with search trends and reader interest in the topic rising exponentially this summer — and it’s not the first spike in popularity for KN95 masks. First published in March while the country was facing an N95 mask shortage and KN95s provided a similar level of protection to the general public, our recommendations were based on expert guidance regarding features and properties, and the brand’s alignment with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Our recommendations have remained largely the same, and some of the same issues we reported in March are creeping back, from supply shortages to the prevalence of counterfeits. Increasing concerns around coronavirus variants across the U.S. are right now elevated with Americans going back to schools and offices, too. As a result, KN95 masks are again in high demand and short supply — and they’re also growing increasingly difficult to buy online. Popular face mask brand VIDA, for example, has been replacing KN95 orders with M95 face masks, and has confirmed to us that they don’t contact customers about the switch since “the situation is extremely dynamic” — on product pages, VIDA tells customers they “may receive” the M95 replacement and attributes that potential to “global shortages.”

To help guide anyone wondering where to find KN95 face masks — or even hoping to understand what they are — we consulted medical experts about who should use KN95 masks and when and how to responsibly source and shop for them.

LEARN MORE about KN95 face masks What they are | How to buy them | M95 face masks | Double masking

Highly rated KN95 face masks

To recommend KN95 masks, we independently confirmed expert-guided qualifications with the brands listed below, asking each to prove their masks’ efficacy with relevant lab tests and documentation, as well as proof of registration with the FDA or formerly getting listed in the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

1. Powecom KN95 masks

5-layer mask | filters 95 percent (or more) of particulate | includes earloops | formerly EUA-authorized

Powecom’s KN95 masks are available in Black and White, and come in a pack of 10. They feature an adjustable nose piece and their earloops are latex-free.

2. WWDOLL KN95 Face Masks

5-layer mask | filters 95 percent (or more) of particulate | includes earloops | FDA-registered | formerly EUA-authorized

WWDOLL’s KN95 masks come in a pack of 25 and can be purchased in Black or White, or a 50-piece multi-color pack. Masks also feature an adjustable nose bridge.

3. Hotodeal KN95 Mask

5-layer mask | filters 95 percent (or more) of particulate | includes earloops | FDA-registered | formerly EUA-authorized

These White KN95 masks come in a pack of 40. They’re built with an adjustable nose clip and you can also purchase them in Black (in stock soon).

4. WellBefore KN95 Masks

5-layer mask | filters 95 percent (or more) of particulate | includes earloops | FDA-registered

WellBefore, a company that sells PPE, offers its KN95 masks in White and Black, and you can choose between standard ear loops, adjustable earloops and adjustable head straps. The masks have an adjustable nose bridge, and you can purchase a minimum of 10 masks, which come individually wrapped.

5. Hope Health Supply KN95 Masks

5-layer mask | filters 95 percent (or more) of particulate | includes earloops | FDA-registered

Hope Health Supply, a brand that sells PPE and medical technology, offers KN95 masks in Black and White. Masks come in packs ranging from 15 to 500 masks and feature an adjustable nose bridge.

6. Evolvetogether KN95 masks (out of stock, estimated restock of some colors by late August)

6-layer mask | filters 95 percent (or more) of particulate | includes earloops | FDA-registered

Evolvetogether’s KN95 masks come in a pack of five and they’re each individually wrapped in biodegradable pouches. The masks feature six layers and an adjustable nose bridge. The KN95 masks are restocking soon in all five colors: Santorini (blue), Copenhagen (khaki), Rio de Janeiro (black), Marrakech (grey) and Mount Fuji (white). You can also purchase a color variety set which comes with 15 KN95 masks.

What is a KN95 mask?

A KN95 face mask filters 95 percent of particulate matter just like the N95 mask, explained Nina Shapiro, MD, professor of head and neck surgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. In fact, KN95 masks are the Chinese equivalent of an N95 mask in the U.S. A governing body like the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sets the standard for KN95 masks in China.

Different countries adopt different mask standards that result in different medical-grade face mask names, explained Jeremy Friese, MD, a former Mayo Clinic physician and the president of the payer market at Olive, which builds healthcare solutions using artificial intelligence. South Korea, for example, holds up the KF94 as its N95 face mask equivalent.

Friese said there are situations where KN95 masks, which are more protective than cloth, disposable or surgical masks, make “a ton of sense” to wear for anyone in the general public.

The CDC states that KN95 masks “may be preferable in some situations or for some people,” like when “prolonged close contact with people who do not live in the same household is unavoidable,” — this includes an office building, grocery store or even on public transportation, Friese noted. The CDC also notes that KN95 masks may be useful for “people who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.”

The FDA revoked a KN95 EUA in July: Why it’s still useful and how it’s somewhat obsolete

When we first published our guide to KN95 masks in March, the country was facing a shortage of N95 masks, similar to how it was during 2020. As a result, we recommended models included in a list of non-NIOSH-approved disposable face masks — including KN95s —that the Food and Drug Administration approved via an Emergency Use Authorization, as well as masks that met expert guidance and were registered with the FDA but not necessarily on the EUA.

The point of the EUA was to direct healthcare workers to use masks manufactured according to other countries’ standards in clinical settings as the country navigated around a shortage of N95 masks. Experts told us it doubled as a way for the public to responsibly source KN95 face masks. It still is. But in July, the FDA revoked its EUA for KN95 masks and stopped updating it or allowing companies to apply for it — there was no longer a need for it, the FDA noted, since N95s were no longer in short supply. This marked the end of their approved use for healthcare workers. It also complicated how the public could go about buying KN95 masks, especially as new models kept making their way to market.

While experts we spoke to agree that Americans can and should use the FDA’s EUA list to guide their shopping, it is still an outdated list, strictly speaking. So additional factors have come into play, causing experts to conclude that all the guidance and research a shopper does shouldn’t stop them from checking the mask they receive to physically confirming guidance. For example, shoppers should inspect their masks to ensure there is no physical damage. This doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything but each component is a step in the right direction.

In addition to supply chain issues, some companies are selling similarly named face masks, sometimes labeling them as “KN95 equivalents.” We’ve also noticed that KN95 masks are out of stock across many retailers — some distributors are changing their manufacturers without notifying customers — rendering those EUA listings irrelevant — and increasing the potential of counterfeit masks slipping into the U.S.

VIDA and the emergence of M95 face masks

Popular face mask brand VIDA modified its product descriptions for KN95 face masks at some point in August, telling customers at the end of those, “You may receive an M95 mask, which is a USA-made mask that is equivalent in protection to the KN95,” reasoning this is a result of “global shortages.”

This same disclaimer has appeared next to the brand’s kids face mask since “early August,” according to a VIDA spokesperson, who also confirmed to us that VIDA doesn’t tell customers about the switch and that you may buy the KN95 mask and receive the M95 mask without any notice regarding your order.

“The swap occurs only on an as-needed basis when our supplier is out of stock of the KN95 masks,” VIDA told us in an email. “Because the situation is extremely dynamic, we are unable to contact customers who receive an M95 in advance of their orders being delivered.”

VIDA says that M95 face masks are “functionally the same” on an FAQ page, and noted in an email to us that all masks have undergone “comprehensive tests” — VIDA published these tests on its site. Regardless, medical experts we spoke to said they’ve never heard of the M95 mask and none could confirm to us that they’re interchangeable with KN95 masks.

We will continue reporting on this issue and update our coverage as we learn more.

How to buy KN95 masks

CDC guidance is brief: Americans should “look for KN95 masks that meet requirements similar to those set by NIOSH. Some KN95 masks sold in the United States meet requirements similar to those set by NIOSH, while other KN95 masks do not.”

The FDA’s list of EUA-authorized KN95 models was one of the best resources to use when searching for a KN95 mask, but it never meant that masks were unsafe for public use if they weren’t on the list. Regardless, the FDA’s list is no longer active and many new KN95 masks are being added to the market.

Here’s how experts suggest going about buying KN95 masks:

The now-revoked Emergency Use Authorization

Despite the EUA being revoked, nothing about the physical KN95 masks have changed, including how they’re made, added Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps people source personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies. Therefore, the FDA’s list, available online, is still a solid reference point.

“There’s nothing about that list that’s now invalid,” Miller said. “It’s just how it’s applied to healthcare workers.”

Miller said we can rely on the FDA’s list of EUA-authorized KN95 models to inform our shopping, at least directionally, because “we know that at some point, companies had to submit information to be reviewed, and the government decided that the masks were good enough for healthcare workers to use while the EUA was in effect.” Miller emphasized that even if a KN95 mask advertises that it was formerly a FDA EUA-authorized model, there is still a chance it could be counterfeit.

FDA registration

When you see a mask listed as “FDA-registered,” it means that the manufacturer behind it is itself registered with the FDA — it holds no bearing on or significance to the face mask itself, although the mask is usually listed in the database, Miller explained. Shoppers sometimes confuse FDA registration with approval or authorization or clearance, Miller said: None of that is true. FDA-registered manufacturers pay a fee for inclusion in the FDA’s Establishment Registration & Device Listing database, she said. Who is required to register? According to the FDA, “establishments that are involved in the production and distribution of medical devices intended for commercial distribution in the United States (U.S.),” and “most establishments that are required to register are also required to list the devices and the activities performed on those devices at that establishment.”

It’s important to note that registration “does not in any way denote approval of the establishment or its products by FDA," according to the FDA. Having said that, registration isn’t without merit. It’s confirmation that the manufacturer and its products exist and can be accounted for in a broad sense — “the FDA knows where to go knocking if there are problems, ” Miller said.

Given manufacturers are unable to apply for the EUA anymore, this registration is another good reference point for your shopping as long as you understand what it means — and what it doesn’t mean.

Performance and design

Miller suggested reviewing lab testing documentation that clearly illustrates a mask’s filtration performance — some brands publish these online and some may send them to you if requested. For each face mask we recommended above, we reviewed the lab testing documentation that each brand sent us upon request.

Friese said it’s very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to spot the difference between a legitimate and a counterfeit KN95 mask just by looking at it.

“Frankly, there isn’t an easy way to see if a KN95 mask is a counterfeit,” Friese said. “Unlike a Louis Vuitton or Gucci bag that has a label to help you distinguish if it’s fake or not, a counterfeit KN95 mask might not look any different than the real thing.”

A KN95 mask should be multi-layered — most have at least five layers — and needless to say, masks shouldn’t be damaged in any way — even a misconstructed earloop is a red flag.

Packaging should never include false claims — nor logos. The FDA does not permit their logo to appear on packaging of any sort — if you see the FDA logo on a mask package, that’s a red flag.

Do you need to double mask with a KN95 mask?

The CDC says “do not combine a KN95 mask with any other masks. You should only use one KN95 mask at a time, and you should not use any type of second mask on top of or underneath a KN95 mask.”

If the KN95 or N95 mask you’re wearing meets the aforementioned expert guidance and it’s tightly fitting, it should offer adequate protection to the wearer and those around them. Friese said that a KN95 mask generally offers more protection than double masking, as long as it properly fits you. But if a KN95 mask has gaps along the sides or is loose fitting, it can lead to potential aerosol leakage in and out of the mask. Specifically, the CDC said a proper fit may be hard to achieve with certain types of facial hair.

Additionally, Shapiro said, if you’re working in a healthcare or caregiving setting, KN95 and N95 masks are your best options. She said wearing eye protection is crucial, too.

PPE consultancy services

If you feel unsure about the KN95 mask you’re considering, you can reach out to services like Project N95, which are working to help the public purchase safe, effective personal protective gear. Miller and a group of volunteers originally founded Project N95 to help distribute PPE like N95 masks (also often counterfeited) to frontline healthcare workers. But now over a year into the pandemic, Project N95 is now helping the general public purchase masks and other items, and providing resources about how to determine whether or not the PPE you’re looking to purchase is safe and effective. Shoppers can visit the nonprofit's website to purchase masks and PPE it has vetted, or email Project N95 to info@projectn95.org to consult with someone about a product you’re interested in.

“We tell doctors, physician practices and members of the public that we’ll stand in the middle of a transaction for you and make sure the PPE you’re buying is right for you,” Miller said.

CORRECTION (Aug. 26, 5:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly included some face mask manufacturers on the FDA’s EUA list. Manufacturers for masks from Evolvetogether, Hope Health and Well Before are not on the list, but are only registered with the FDA. We’ve kept them on the list because they meet guidance from medical experts.

UPDATE (Aug. 26, 5:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article included the VIDA KN95 face mask. We’ve removed it from the list because the brand is shipping M95 face masks for some orders of KN95 face masks given "global shortages," according to its site.

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