Even though most states’ mask mandates ended in early 2022, you may still find yourself reaching for one or needing to restock your supply. In fact, many are back to fully embracing face masks due to concerns about what experts are calling the “tripledemic,” the simultaneous circulation of Covid-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
There are many types of face coverings you can choose from, and we’ve previously highlighted disposable and cloth options, as well as gaiters. And while the CDC stops short of directly recommending one mask over another, they have said that respirators — among them N95 and KN95 face masks — offer more protection than cloth masks.
“While all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitted respirators provide the highest level of protection,” the CDC noted. (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 prioritized respirators above masks — with emphasis on a proper fit — and specified 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
If you’re wondering how to navigate the process of buying KN95 respirators, we talked to medical experts about who will benefit most by 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 — we even tried every one of the masks we recommend to get a feel for them.
Highly rated KN95 face masks
When it comes to KN95 masks, experts recommend models that filter out at least 95 percent of particulates, are constructed with ear loops and are comprised multiple layers. Each of the following masks have features that align with expert guidance and our research: Five or more layers, 95-percent filtration (or above) and ear loops.
Experts told us that transparency regarding face masks is a must-have in any brand you shop. This is especially relevant for KN95 masks, which aren’t regulated the way N95 masks are. Despite not being regulated, there are ways for these brands and their 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. Learn more about KN95 masks, FDA registration and the EUA.
- All of the masks below 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 told us.
- Some of the masks below appeared on the FDA’s EUA — we note which ones.
- For all of the masks below, we’ve obtained associated lab tests regarding filtration. For masks that appeared on the FDA’s EUA, we got documentation from the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory. Other brands sent us documentation directly.
Finally, we bought and tried on multiple face masks and only recommended ones whose packaging, features and fit align with what experts told us to expect.
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.
WWDOLL’s KN95 masks were also 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.
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.
Evolvetogether’s KN95 masks come in a pack of five and are individually wrapped in what the company has said are biodegradable pouches. Each has six layers and an adjustable nose bridge. The KN95 masks come in multiple colors, and you can also purchase a color variety set, which comes with 15 KN95 masks.
What is a KN95 mask?
A KN95 face mask is a type of disposable respirator. It filters 95 percent of particulate matter, just like the N95 mask, explained Dr. Nina Shapiro, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at Westside Head and Neck in California.
KN95 masks are the Chinese equivalent of an N95 respirator in the U.S. A Chinese governing body similar to the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sets the standard for KN95 masks in China. Since they’re designed to meet a Chinese standard, KN95s are not regulated in the U.S. From April 2020 to June 2021, the FDA had a temporary emergency use authorization that allowed U.S. health workers to use KN95s on the job. It later ended the EUA because NIOSH-approved respirators were no longer in short supply.
How to buy KN95 masks
While the CDC doesn’t provide specific regulations to follow when it comes to choosing a KN95 mask, they do offer a list of factors to consider when purchasing an international respirator like a KN95, as well as a list of tips to help you spot masks that may not meet the necessary standards.
It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to be sure you’re really buying a KN95 mask just by looking at it, said 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, suggested 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 to you 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 told 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.
Are KN95 masks reusable?
KN95 masks are disposable face coverings, so you can’t wash and reuse them like you can a cloth mask. However, you don’t have to toss a KN95 mask after a single use. A KN95 mask can be worn multiple times If you remove and store it properly. Shapiro said KN95s should be stored in a paper bag between uses. If you notice that a mask is wet or dirty, or if it’s damaged — for example, if any part of it is worn away, or if the straps are broken or stretched — you should throw it out, she said.
Shapiro said she wouldn’t wear a KN95 more than three or four times maximum, especially if doing so for multiple hours. Additionally, if you knowingly come into close contact with someone infected with Covid, or you yourself have Covid while wearing it, you should throw the mask out after a single use.
How to wear a KN95 mask
Regardless of the type of mask you wear, it won’t protect you or the people around you unless you wear it correctly. The CDC recommends making sure it completely covers your mouth and nose and fits tightly against your face to prevent gaps around the sides of the mask, nose and chin.
All masks fit differently, and features like adjustable ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge help you improve the fit of your mask, as do mask fitters or braces, according to the CDC. Using a fitter or brace is especially a good idea for people with facial hair, which can make it difficult to achieve a tight fit.
The CDC said that “it is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.”
When comparing different types of masks, “properly fitted respirators provide the highest level of protection,” including N95s and KN95s, according to the CDC. The agency said disposable surgical masks and reusable cloth masks offer less protection.
The CDC has said you should not double-mask while wearing a KN95 mask. Friese added that a KN95 mask generally offers more protection than double-masking anyway, as long as it fits well.
You should not wear international respirators with exhalation valves or vents, either, according to the CDC — this guidance applies to all masks.
Why wear a face mask? Do face masks protect others against Covid or just the wearers?
To recommend when Americans should wear face masks, the CDC determines an area’s Covid-19 Community Level risk on a scale of low, medium or high. To do so, it analyzes how many Covid-related hospital beds are in use, hospital admissions and the total number of new Covid cases in that area. Each Covid-19 Community Level corresponds to a masking recommendation — suggested precautions increase alongside the level. To determine your area’s Covid-19 Community Level, use the CDC's Covid-19 county check.
The CDC’s order requiring masks on public transportation and at transportation hubs is no longer in effect, and many airlines ended their mask mandates in spring 2022. However, the CDC said it “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings,” despite being unable to enforce any rules. Before you use a specific public transportation system in your area, be sure to double-check its mask requirements as they can change at any time.
Experts have repeatedly stressed that masks help reduce the risk of viral transmission. One 2021 CDC study found that, between two properly masked or double-masked people, the risk of one giving the other a virus was cut by over 95 percent. Masking up also protects other people, as demonstrated in numerous studies like these gathered by the CDC.
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.
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.