If you’re concerned about spiking COVID cases in your area, you may find yourself reaching for a face mask (and an at-home COVID test). But which type of face mask offers the most protection? Respirators — among them KN95 masks and N95 masks — are more protective than cloth masks, according to the CDC.
“While all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitted respirators provide the highest level of protection,” the CDC notes. (Most people use “mask” and “respirator” interchangeably, but when the CDC and medical professionals say “respirator,” they specifically mean specialized, fitted face coverings like N95s, KN95s and KF94s.)
In their guide to masks and respirators, the CDC further prioritizes respirators above masks — with emphasis on a proper fit — and specifies that they’re better than cloth products. Here, a cheat sheet of the different levels of protection offered by different masks and respirators:
- Highest level of protection: Well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), including N95s
- Less protection than NIOSH-approved respirators: Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s
- Less protection than non-NIOSH respirators and surgical masks: Layered, finely woven products
- Least protection (but still better than not wearing a mask at all): Loosely woven cloth products
To help you navigate the process of buying KN95 respirators, we talked to medical experts about who benefits most from using them, when to wear them and how to shop for them. We also highlighted products based on expert guidance and in alignment with the latest from the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC. Plus, we tried every one of the masks we recommend to get a feel for them.
SKIP AHEAD How to shop for KN95 face masks
How we picked the best KN95 face masks
While shopping for KN95 masks, experts recommend keeping the following in mind:
- Filtration level: KN95 masks must filter out at least 95% of particulates, experts tell us. For all of the masks we recommend, we obtained associated lab tests regarding filtration. We got documentation from the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory or had brands send us documentation directly.
- Construction: The KN95 masks you buy should have ear loops and be comprised of at least five layers.
- Brand transparency: Brand transparency is key when buying any type of face mask, but it's especially relevant for KN95 masks, which aren’t regulated the way N95 masks are. Despite not being regulated, there are ways for brands and manufacturers to increase their trustworthiness, like FDA registration or inclusion in the FDA’s now-defunct emergency use authorization (EUA), which it passed in 2020 to help medical workers choose KN95 masks.
The best KN95 face masks
Each of the following masks have features that align with expert guidance and our research: Five or more layers, 95% filtration (or above) and ear loops. We bought and tried on all of the face masks we recommend to ensure their packaging, features and fit align with what experts tell us to expect.
Additionally, all of the masks we recommend come from manufacturers registered with the FDA — while this has nothing to do with regulating mask quality, it increases accountability for the brand selling it, experts tell us. Some of the masks we recommend also appeared on the FDA’s EUA — we note which ones.
WWDOLL’s KN95 masks were featured on the FDA’s EUA list. They come in a pack of 25 and are available in multiple colors. These masks also feature an adjustable nose bridge.
These KN95 masks were featured on the FDA’s EUA list. They come in a pack of 40, are built with an adjustable nose clip, and come in colors like white, black and grey.
Powecom’s KN95 masks were featured on the FDA’s EUA list. They are available in black and white, as well as multiple colors, all of which come in a pack of 10. You can also purchase individually packaged KN95s. The masks have an adjustable nose piece and their ear loops are latex-free, according to the brand.
Evolvetogether’s KN95 masks come in a pack of five and are individually wrapped in biodegradable pouches, according to the brand. Each mask has six layers and an adjustable nose bridge. The KN95 masks come in multiple colors.
WellBefore offers KN95 masks in multiple colors and allows a choice between standard ear loops and head straps. The masks have an adjustable nose bridge, and you can purchase as few as 10 masks, which come individually wrapped.
How to buy KN95 masks
While the CDC doesn’t provide specific regulations to follow when choosing a KN95 mask, they do offer a list tips to help you spot masks that may not meet the necessary standards.
It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to be sure you’re buying a real KN95 mask just by looking at it, says Dr. Jeremy Friese, a former Mayo Clinic physician and the former president of the payer market at Olive, an Ohio-based company that integrates artificial intelligence into health care.
Experts we interviewed recommend you review your masks after receiving them and before wearing them with the following in mind:
- A KN95 mask should not be damaged in any way
- Packaging should never include false claims or logos from the FDA. The FDA does not permit their logo to appear on packaging of any sort
- KN95 masks shouldn’t cost more than $3 apiece, according to the CDC
Additionally, Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps people source personal protective equipment and medical supplies, suggests shoppers review lab testing documents that clearly illustrate how well a mask acts as a filter. Some brands publish these online, while others may send them if you ask.
Another factor to consider while shopping for KN95 masks is FDA registration. To register with the FDA, manufacturers pay a fee and submit certain criteria about the operation. Though experts tell us this is better to have than not, FDA registration has no bearing on the quality of the face mask itself and does not denote approval of the mask or its manufacturer by the FDA.
Miller also previously told us that the list of KN95 models the FDA specifically approved in its April 2020 emergency use authorization is one of the best resources to use when sourcing the respirators, even after the FDA stopped updating the list in 2021.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Nina Shapiro is a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at Westside Head and Neck in California. She is the author of “HYPE: A Doctor’s Guide To Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice,” as well as a children’s book, “The Ultimate Kids’ Guide To Being Super Healthy.” Shapiro was also the director of pediatric otolaryngology and a professor of head and neck surgery at David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles for 25 years.
- Dr. Jeremy Friese is a former Mayo Clinic physician. He is also the former president of the payer market at Olive, an Ohio-based company that integrates artificial intelligence into health care.
- Anne Miller is the executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps people source personal protective equipment and medical supplies.
Why trust Select?
Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor who has covered face masks for Select since 2020. She's written about disposable masks, KN95 masks, N95 masks and KN95 masks for kids, in addition to at-home Covid tests and vaccine card holders. For this article, Malin spoke to three experts about how to shop for KN95 masks and tried every mask she recommended in the article.
CORRECTION (Aug. 26, 2021, 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, 2021, 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.