Late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant, and made a big move: The agency opened up the use of N95 masks to everyone. N95 masks were previously restricted to healthcare workers because of supply chain issues, making this a really big deal.
At the same time, the CDC went more in-depth about KN95 masks, noting that they “offer even more protection” than surgical and cloth masks. So, naturally, there’s been a run on KN95 and N95 masks.
KN95 masks aren’t a new thing for the public: People have been using these for months in the U.S. But if you haven’t used either a KN95 or N95 mask in the past, you probably have questions about what, exactly, these are.
N95 masks, which are considered the gold standard of face masks, are particulate respirators that filter out at least 95% of aerosols, according to the CDC. (Worth noting: There’s a subtype of N95 masks labeled “surgical” N95 respirators. These provide extra protection against hazards that may be present during medical procedures like blood splatter, and should still be reserved for healthcare workers, the CDC says.)
KN95 masks are the Chinese version of N95 masks, explains Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. These are certified by the Chinese government and also filter out up to 95% of aerosols.
The main difference between these two masks is that N95s have to meet stricter requirements, including the ability to filter out bacteria and viruses, and be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Still, “N95 and KN95 respirators are quite comparable,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to snatch up a KN95 mask and know that it performs the way it says it does. But the CDC warns that up to 60% of KN95 masks on the market are counterfeit and do not work as well as they claim. “There are definitely counterfeits out there,” Dr. Schaffner says.
That’s where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) comes in. Earlier in the pandemic, the FDA issued emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for KN95 masks to allow healthcare workers who couldn’t obtain N95s to use them and trust that they were legit. The FDA has since revoked those EUAs now that N95s are more widely available (to healthcare workers, at least). Prior to that, some companies and their masks were taken off the list for producing products that weren’t up to snuff, making the whole process pretty confusing. The list isn’t updated anymore, but you can generally use it as a buying guide to make sure that the KN95 masks you’re buying are good.
N95 masks, on the other hand, have to be NIOSH-approved, and the government agency has a list online that you can use to look up a mask you’re considering. Keep in mind, too, that if you buy an N95 mask from a reputable retailer, like Target, CVS, Home Depot, or Lowe’s, you can usually trust that it’s legitimate, Dr. Russo says.
Whether you choose an N95 or KN95 respirator, the CDC recommends that your mask forms a tight seal to your face. You’ll also want to take a pass on masks that have exhalation valves, vents, or other openings, as well as those that you feel like you can’t breathe well when you’re wearing them.
It’s all a lot to take in and, unfortunately, the process of buying KN95 and N95 masks in the U.S. is a little complicated. Still, there are good quality masks available. To make the whole process a little easier on you, here’s a breakdown of quality KN95 and N95 masks that are actually available for sale right now. Stock up while you can.
Powecom 11 Pack KN95 Face Mask
Powecom’s KN95 masks have been fan-favorites on Amazon for months. These masks have four layers of protection, along with a two-strap headband design for a secure fit. A metal nose bridge allows you to easily mold the mask to your face.
What reviewers say: “This mask feels very safe and high quality, not flimsy like many other masks out there, and it fits snugly to my face. I especially like that it does not fog up my glasses in colder temperatures. The particular rigid, pointed shape of the mask gives my mouth some extra breathing room which is nice.”
3M Aura Particulate Respirator N95, 10-Pack
3M is one of the most reputable names in N95 respirators, and it’s Aura masks are still in stock at Home Depot. This mask has a lightweight, three-panel design with a metal nose bridge to help you get a secure fit, no matter your face shape. It also features headband-style elastics to take the pressure off your ears. The masks fold up for easy storage in your bag or pocket.
What reviewers say: “Better fit than any other mask I’ve worn at work or for personal use.”
3M 8210 Plus N95 Particulate Respirator, 20-Pack
Another great N95 option from 3M, this respirator protects against solid and liquid aerosols that don’t contain oil. It has a soft interior foam around the adjustable nose bridge for a comfortable fit and lightweight design that makes it easy to wear.
What reviewers say: “3M knows what they are doing. The 8210 plus is so easy to breathe through and the straps are tight yet comfortable. They are perfectly for reuse. They are just so good, especially if you have to wear something for a few hours or just going to the store.”
HDX N95 Respirator Masks, 10-Pack
HDX’s N95 respirators have a medium-to-large coverage, allowing for a good fit for a wide range of face sizes. A cupped design keeps the mask off your face for easy breathing. Headband-style straps and a metal nose bridge allow for a tight fit.
What reviewers say: “Like that it was not over my ears like soooo many others. Give my ears a break people!!!”
Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator, 50-Pack
Some N95 masks have a “pouch” shape, like this Kimberly-Clark model. It features a large chamber for easy breathing, along with a metal nose bridge and headband-style straps for a secure fit. Another perk of the pouch-style N95: It folds up easily when it’s not in use.
What reviewers say: “I found these masks very easy to put on, and I love that they don’t hang from your ears. They have a nice soft texture, and fit securely without digging into your face. I found breathing in them to be very comfortable, and I wore one for the entire day.”
WellBefore N95 Respirator, 10 Pack
Well Before’s N95 masks offer up adjustable headband straps to let you get that just-right fit and prevent gaps. It also offers a wide and tented design, giving you more breathing space. A nice perk: They come individually wrapped, so you can toss one directly into your bag without worrying about lint.
What reviewers say: “I purchased the N95 masks and they are really good. They are secure, fit great, adjustable, and comfortable. I’ve been able to keep one on for eight hours straight.”
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