Health officials have been urging people to ditch their cloth face coverings and upgrade to higher quality masks as the omicron coronavirus variant quickly spreads across the country.
The California Department of Public Health, which recently extended its statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces and workplaces to Feb. 15, updated its mask guidance Monday.
The agency recommends different tiers of mask effectiveness in protecting individuals from COVID-19, with N95 masks as the most effective. KF94, KN95, double masks and fitted surgical masks are in the second tier: “more effective.” Surgical masks are at third and cloth masks with three or more layers are least effective.
The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2021 recommends that “surgical” N95 respirators be prioritized for health care workers and that people should wear coverings that have multiple layers of breathable fabric, a nose wire, and it should fit over the mouth and nose.
However, many health experts agree that the general public should consider using higher quality, medical-grade masks, such as N95 and KN95, if possible, to prevent the spread of omicron, according to a McClatchy report.
Here’s a rundown of what we know about these masks.
What’s the difference between N95 and KN95 masks?
N95 and KN95 masks are quite similar in filtering non-oil-based particles, such as viruses, according to 3M, a multinational company that manufactures and sells a wide range of products, including N95 respirators.
The two masks have the same filter performance of 95% or more. This means they both can reduce the concentration of airborne particles that pass through the filter at the same rate.
The main difference between the two is where they are certified. N95 masks are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and meet U.S. standards.
The CDC estimates that 60% of KN95 masks sold in the U.S. are fake.
Standard KN95 masks are manufactured in China and satisfy standards created by the country, according to a USA Today report. KF94 masks, which are also recommended by the CDPH, are made in Korea and meet Korean standards.
These masks may fit differently for each individual depending on their facial features. According to 3M, the masks are oftentimes designed to fit people with features that are common in the respective country or region.
When choosing a mask, the company advises that people check local public health guidance and the mask standards from where it is approved. To avoid counterfeit masks, look for NIOSH-approved respirators.
Where can I get a N95 or KN95 mask?
Due to statewide mask mandates and the highly contagious omicron variant, some stores may run out of N95 and KN95 masks. Project N95, a nonprofit that works to distribute personal protective equipment and COVID-19 tests equitably to all communities, offers NIOSH-approved N95 masks on its website. Prices start at $14.80 per package, depending on the type and brand of mask.
You can also find KN95 masks online on Amazon.
How do I make sure my mask is not counterfeit?
Unfortunately, because of high demand, some masks may not be legitimate or officially meet standards set by certain countries.
The CDC recommends that people be cautious of products that are listed as “legitimate” or “genuine,” if there are price swings and to look at reviews when buying masks from a third-party market or unfamiliar website.
Other precautions include website errors, such as typos and broken links, and if the masks are advertised to have “unlimited stock.”
If you’re in the market for an N95 mask, the CDC said some indicators that it’s a counterfeit include:
- No markings on the face piece
- No approval (TC) number on mask or headband
- No NIOSH markings
- NIOSH is incorrectly spelled
- There’s decoration or other fabric on the mask
- Claims that the mask is approved for children. NIOSH does not specifically approve any type of mask for children.
- The mask has ear loops instead of headbands
You can also check the CDC website for a list of NIOSH-approved N95 face masks.