In May of this year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended the Covid-19 federal public health emergency, and many states had already lifted or eased Covid mask mandates before that declaration expired. But the recent wildfires in Canada have many Americans reaching for face protection once again.
For wildfire smoke protection specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting time outdoors as much as possible to prevent exposure. But for those who must go outside, a tight fitting N95 mask can help filter out smoke and ash particles before they’re breathed in. The EPA only recommends using particulate respirator masks like N95 or P100 masks that have been tested and approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), for protection from wildfire smoke. These masks offer far higher degree of protection than cloth masks or blue “surgical” procedure masks.
Although N95s are the only mask approved by a US regulatory agency, there are also other high-quality respirator masks on the market that are designed to meet international standards. According to the CDC, the most widely available mask respirators that meet an international standard are KN95 respirators, designed to the Chinese standard; there are also KF94 respirators, which meet the South Korean standard. But be aware that no US regulatory agency oversees the manufacturing or import of KN95 or KF94 respirator masks.
This doesn’t mean KN95 and KF94 masks are bad, but, because they are not regulated by a US agency, we are exclusively recommending only NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks in this article. Read on for details about how to tell if an N95 mask is authentic, and for more guidance on KN95 and K494 masks.
• Related: How to choose the right air purifier for you
Where to buy N95 respirator masks
We pored over the CDC’s list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks (which NIOSH reviews and updates weekly) to find readily available, NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks. Note that all N95 respirator masks are intended for adults only. According to the CDC, while there are N95 masks for children on the market, there currently is no formal CDC-approved guidance for children.
According to the CDC, “Although respirators may be available in smaller sizes, they are typically designed to be used by adults in workplaces and therefore have not been tested for broad use in children.”
While N95 masks are meant for adults only — and any masks marketed for children should raise serious concerns — CNN Health has reported that KN95 masks will provide better protection for children than surgical or cloth masks, especially when following the CDC’s knot and tuck method.
This mask’s flexible contoured nosepiece and duckbill design allows for a custom fit to a variety of different face sizes and shapes. It appears here on the CDC list. NIOSH approval number TC-84A-9318 and model number 3120.
This is a fold-style N95 mask. You can opt for a one-time purchase or subscribe and get masks delivered monthly. It appears here on the CDC list. NIOSH approval number TC-84A-9251 and model number DT-N95-FH.
You can get 20 of these N95 masks for $0.75 each, 40 masks for $0.73 each or 80 masks for $0.70 each. The price per unit lowers as quantity increases (up to 10,000 masks). It appears here on the CDC list. NIOSH approval number TC-84A-6973 and model number HRLY-N95-L188-20.
This mask is a cup-style N95 mask and comes in packs of 5, 10, 20 or 40, so you can order the amount right for you. It appears here on the CDC list. NIOSH approval number TC-84A-9295 and model number SR9520.
You can get this as a one-time 10-pack mask purchase or as a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly subscription of automatic shipments. This flat-fold mask features adjustable head straps. It appears here on the CDC list. NIOSH approval number TC-84A-7447 and model number WB-N-200.
What about masks not on this list?
For more information on specific NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks and approved manufacturers and distributors, see the CDC N95 mask list, which also provides model numbers. Be warned that this list is very difficult for most consumers to navigate, and often there are no links to where you can buy the masks. Going directly to manufacturer and distributor websites can also be confusing.
Not every N95 mask listed on an approved manufacturer’s or distributor’s website may be NIOSH-approved, so note the model numbers listed on the CDC list to ensure you’re ordering what you actually mean to order. Admittedly, this can also be difficult to do since mask model numbers are not always made readily available on these websites. This brings us to other ways to sort out your N95 and equivalent respirator mask purchases.
Your N95 respirator mask: How to tell if it is authentic or counterfeit
According to the CDC, counterfeit respirators are “products that are falsely marketed and sold as being NIOSH-approved and may not be capable of providing appropriate respiratory protection.” But most consumers will have a hard time spotting a counterfeit mask by simply looking at it or holding it, according to Bill Taubner, president of New York-based Bona Fide Masks Corp., a mask supplier approved by Project N95, the National Clearinghouse for personal protective equipment (PPE) and Covid-19 tests. Project N95 is a nonprofit working to provide access to affordable and authentic respiratory protection for all via education, advocacy and distribution.
To help ensure you’re buying an actual NIOSH-approved N95 respirator mask, check the CDC’s list of counterfeit N95 respirator masks. The CDC states that N95 respirator masks have appropriate N95 markings printed on the mask to indicate authenticity. Some of these markings include the model number and the NIOSH TC-approval number (e.g., TC-84A-XXXX). For masks manufactured after September 2008, the NIOSH TC-approval number is required to appear on the mask.
According to the CDC, some of the telltale signs that an N95 mask might be fake are that “NIOSH” isn’t listed on the mask, “NIOSH” is spelled incorrectly, the mask has decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins), there are claims that it’s approved for children and the mask has ear loops instead of headbands. Authentic N95 respirator masks have two headbands: one to go over the crown of the head and one that sits at the base of the neck. These headbands provide a snug fit around the face, cheeks and chin.
Why we don’t have specific recommendations for KN95 or KN94 masks
N95 masks may not work for everyone. As previously stated, there currently are no NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks approved for children, and some wearers may choose slightly less protective masks to gain additional comfort or convenience, avoiding potentially face-pinching and bad-hair-day-making elastic headbands and rigid cups for more comfortable ear loops and softer “boat” or “duckbill” style designs.
But are these other designs safe? The situation is a little more complex. Among KN95 respirators NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) evaluated in 2020 and 2021, “about 60% … did not meet the requirements that they intended to meet.”
The South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety does approve KF94 respirator masks, though those masks might be hard to find. “There are many good-quality ones,” explains Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, “but supply chain delays are affecting all imported goods.” One way to check to see if a KF94 mask is authentic is to see if the label says it was made in South Korea.
As for KN95s, the problem, Miller points out, is that “KN95 is an independent standard. This means that there is no third-party verification that the masks meet standards.” And though the CDC doesn’t approve anything other than N95 masks, NPPTL does maintain a list of the KN95 and KF94 respirator masks that passed muster during its rounds of testing conducted while N95 masks were still in short supply.
Miller has advice on how to ensure you’re buying a KN95 mask that meets China’s latest GB 2626-2019 standard for KN95 masks. “At a very minimum,” she says, “confirm that the mask meets the easiest aspects of the KN95 standard, such as the required printing of KN95, GB 2626-2019 (or 2006) on the mask itself,” she says. “If the manufacturer does not take the time to read the standard and see that GB 2626-2019 is required to be printed, this may indicate that it does not meet the other strict testing requirements of the standard.”
Ultimately, Miller warns, when buying masks made to international standards, consumers “must trust in the manufacturer’s self-certification to the standards set in place by the Chinese government. KN95s do not go through any Chinese approval process prior to certification. No US agency is verifying the quality or authenticity of any KN95.”
How to use a mask correctly
In the end, though, the truest protection comes from the integrity of the seal against your face. If there is the slightest gap in the seal of the mask on your face, then it doesn’t matter what designation or approval stamp the mask carries — particles can get in. The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers a “Covid-19 Safety and Health Topics” page on its website that provides specific information about protecting people from Covid-19. A video in OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Training Video series can teach you how to properly put on a mask to ensure a snug fit. The video is available in English and Spanish.
While high-quality masks are much easier to come by nowadays, supplies of specific masks may still be limited, and reuse of masks is a good option until you can order more.
“For the general public, in times of low supply, it’s not unreasonable for users to wear their masks a few times before discarding them,” says Dr. K.C. Rondello, clinical associate professor at the College of Nursing and Public Health at Adelphi University in New York and an epidemiologist and special adviser to Adelphi’s Office of University Health and Wellness. Rondello says this is especially true if the masks are only being worn for a short period each use. “The longer the mask is on,” adds Rondello, “the more saturated the filter becomes and the less useful it is.”