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A year into the coronavirus pandemic, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene updated its guidance on face coverings to suggest “higher grade masks, like KN95s, for people at greater risk,” noting those groups included anyone 65 and older, experiencing an underlying medical condition, caring for someone who’s sick or regularly in “prolonged close contact with non-household members while indoors.” Some European countries like Germany, France and Austria are even beginning to recommend that the general public wear medical-grade masks on public transportation or in businesses.
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.
Jeremy Friese, MD, president of Payer Market, Olive
Despite the guidance out of New York City, The Centers for Disease Control Prevention currently does not advise on who, if anyone, should wear KN95 masks or similar medical-grade masks, though the CDC does recommend double masking. But the increasing prevalence of coronavirus variants across the U.S. has Americans searching for KN95 masks. To help guide anyone doing the same and wondering where to find these face masks — or even what they are — we consulted medical experts about the use of KN95 masks, how to purchase them and who should wear them and when.
What is a KN95 mask?
Nina Shapiro, MD, professor of head and neck surgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and author of “HYPE: A Doctor's Guide to Medical Myths,” said a KN95 mask is manufactured to offer 95 percent protection from particulate matter, like the N95 mask. 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.
And many different countries have 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 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.
“KN95 masks are meant to have a similar protection profile as N95 masks,” noted Friese. “It’s just that instead of being governed by the United States, it’s governed by China.”
How to buy a KN95 mask
Because KN95 masks are not NIOSH-approved and many are manufactured in China, they can be tricky to shop for. One of the biggest issues is an influx of KN95 counterfeits on the market, said Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps people source personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies. The best way to purchase KN95 masks and similar respirators is to buy directly from manufacturers, Miller explained. However, large manufacturers often won’t sell a single box of KN95 masks, opting to work exclusively with large distributors. Those distributors further complicate shopping for a KN95 face mask: It’s hard to know exactly where they’re coming from. If you’re looking to purchase a KN95 mask, it’s important to cross reference it with the FDA’s lists first, Shapiro told us.
Using the FDA’s lists is “probably the best — if not the only — way to tell if a mask came directly from an approved manufacturer,” Friese said. Even if a mask advertises that it’s made by one of the FDA EUA-authorized manufacturers, there is still a chance it could be a counterfeit — unless, of course, you’re buying directly from the manufacturer.
Best KN95 masks to purchase
If you’re going to buy a KN95 face mask, we found some highly-rated options that are made by FDA EUA-authorized manufacturers.
These Black KN95 masks are Amazon bestsellers and come in packs of 25. They’re designed with five layers of fabric, including an outer layer made from non-woven fabric that filters large particles and an inner, skin-friendly layer that’s soft against your face. Each mask feature elastic ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge. WWDOLL also sells a 50-pack of Black, White or Multicolor KN95 masks, and a pack of 25 White KN95 masks.
Also an Amazon bestseller, these White KN95 masks come in a pack of 20. They feature an adjustable nose clip, are made from five layers of fabric and have elastic ear loops. The KN95 masks also come in Grey and Multicolor.
WellBefore, a company that sells PPE like face masks and face shields, has three types of KN95 masks available on its website: 3D Style KN95 masks, Kids KN95 masks and these individually wrapped White KN95 masks. I personally purchased these to wear while flying and for commuting by train and subway. Because they’re individually wrapped, you can throw a few in your bag or suitcase without worrying about getting them dirty. The masks are made from five layers of fabric, have adjustable ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge.
In addition to its reusable cloth face masks (a favorite among Shopping readers), VIDA sells KN95 masks in Black, White and Cyan. Masks come in packs of 10, 20, 30 or 50. They’re made with five layers of fabric and have elastic ear loops as well as an adjustable nose clip. VIDA also sells Kids KN95 masks, filters and face mask accessories like ear loop adjusters and chains.
Hope Health Supply, a brand that sells PPE and medical technology, offers KN95 masks in Black and White. Masks come in packs of 10, 25, 50, 100, 250 or 500. They’re made from five layers of fabric, have ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge. Each face mask order triggers a donated face mask to a hospital in need.
How protective are KN95 masks?
KN95 masks are typically more protective than cloth masks, gaiters, bandanas and even surgical masks, Shapiro said. However, how protective the mask is in many ways depends on how form-fitting it is to your face.
“It’s the fit that makes a big difference,” she noted. “Many mask manufacturers make multiple sizes and shapes, so it's important to have a mask with a good fit.”
Are KN95 masks authorized for use?
There has been an overwhelming need of N95 masks for healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic. N95 masks are considered the “gold standard” face mask, according to Friese, since they’re NIOSH-approved respirators.
The heightened demand led to a shortage of N95 masks early on during the pandemic. To help solve this problem, the Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for KN95 masks that are manufactured in China but are not NIOSH-approved. According to Shapiro, the FDA released documentation that KN95 masks made by certain manufacturers in China are deemed effective for protection. The list is available on the FDA’s website: Authorized Imported, Non-NIOSH Approved Respirators Manufactured in China. It advises the general public, healthcare professionals and businesses about which KN95 masks are deemed legitimate and safe to use.
The FDA also published a list of respirator models that were previously on the list of authorized respirator but no longer meet the EUA eligibility criteria (they’re now listed right below the aforementioned list on FDA's site). Thus, masks on those lists are no longer authorized and should not be purchased or used.
Sourcing KN95 masks and other PPE
In addition to utilizing the lists published by the FDA, services like Project N95 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 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.
“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.
To use Project KN95’s services, shoppers can visit the nonprofit's website, make a free account and browse the personal protective equipment available to purchase. Additionally, if you’re looking to buy an N95 mask, KN95 mask or other PPE on Amazon, for example, and want to know if it’s legitimate, you can email Project N95 to ensure you’re purchasing a legitimate product: email@example.com.
What to avoid when purchasing a KN95 mask
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.”
Miller said Project N95’s research shows that most KN95 masks are sold for between $2 and $3 a piece. If the masks you’re considering are far outside that range, she suggests you avoid them as they may be counterfeited — or it’s a sign of price gouging.
Miller said KN95 masks are always made with ear loops, not a head strap. N95 masks, however, are made with head straps. If you are looking at a mask that’s advertised as a KN95 but has a head strap, Miller said it’s either incorrectly labeled or it might be a fake, so she suggests not buying it.
Do you need to double mask with a KN95 mask?
If the KN95 or N95 mask you’re wearing is either NIOSH-approved or on the FDA’s EUA list, and it’s tightly fitting, it offers 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. So no matter what, Shapiro said, “if the KN95 has any gaps, a second mask should be worn.” For outdoor activities or brief interactions, wearing a surgical mask with an additional multi-layer cloth mask over it (double masking) is an “excellent” option, she said.
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.
Who should wear KN95 masks?
The CDC advises against the general public wearing N95 masks: “Do not use NIOSH-approved N95 respirators that are meant for healthcare workers. NIOSH-approved N95 respirators are critical supplies that should be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders to prevent supply shortages.”
But 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 (and New York City, for example, seems to agree):
- If you might have a prolonged contact with someone who could be or is infected with Covid, like if you’re caring for a sick family member.
- On planes and trains, or other spaces where you might be sitting next to people for a prolonged period of time
- In public spaces like the grocery store, offices or workplaces where you may have close contact with people for prolonged periods of time