Tips for choosing a high-filtration mask with a good fit and avoiding counterfeit products

Grabbing a mask before heading out the door remains part of our daily lives. But with the highly contagious Omicron variant still spreading across Oregon, some of our masks may not be protecting us as much as they did against previous COVID-19 variants.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their masking recommendations: N​95 and KN​95 respirators provide greater protection than cloth or disposable medical masks. They are made to fit tightly to the face, and when worn properly do a better job than cloth or medical masks at keeping virus-carrying particles from passing through and around the mask.

As the demand for masks increased over the course of the pandemic, so did the number of fake or counterfeit masks in the marketplace. It’s important to know the differences between your mask options and how to spot a counterfeit or low-quality mask.

Types of high-filtration masks:

From left to right, types of masks: KN95, N95 and medical
  • N​95 masks ideally filter at least 95% of airborne particles with the proper fit, and they are approved by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
  • KN​95 masks also ideally filter at least 95% of airborne particles but are not approved by NIOSH. They are manufactured in China and meet China’s standard of quality requirements.
  • KF​94 masks ideally filter at least 94% of airborne particles, are made in South Korea and meet Korea’s standard of quality requirements. They are not approved by NIOSH.

These types of respirator masks may not be necessary to wear in all situations, but the CDC recommends them in certain high-risk circumstances, such as if you’re caring for someone who is sick with COVID-19, traveling on public transportation or if you’re unvaccinated.

Here’s how your mask options stack up:

  • Best – N​95 respirators
  • Better – KN​95 or KF​94 respirators
  • Good – Double masking with a disposable surgical mask under a cloth mask. Do not layer two disposable masks.
  • Fair – A single disposable surgical mask offers better protection than a cloth mask.
  • Least protective – A single cloth mask provides the least protection but is better than no mask all.

How to spot counterfeit masks:

Masks from legitimate sources will have:

  • Tamper-free, sealed packaging. Be wary of masks that are packaged in a bag with a twist tie or zip-lock close.
  • Packaging clearly marked with a legitimate website, physical address, the manufacturing location and an expiration date.
  • Proper official language. For example, if an N95 mask is labeled “FDA approved,” that is a red flag. N95s are approved by NIOSH, not the FDA. Counterfeit masks may come with a “certificate of approval,” but NIOSH does not issue such approvals.
  • A company name or logo imprinted directly on the mask material.
  • Effective quality control. Masks that are damaged or have issues that compromise the fit, such as elastic bands that are too lose or a broken nose-bridge, shouldn’t be trusted.

N95 masks will also have:

  • A NIOSH mark that is easily visible and spelled correctly.
  • An approval number that starts with “TC-84A” followed by four more numbers imprinted on the mask or head bands. If the mask is NIOSH-approved it will be on this list.
  • Elastic bands that go around the head, creating a tighter seal and better protection. Most NIOSH-approved N95 masks do not have ear loops.

KN95 masks will also have:

  • A GB marking indicating it meets Chinese national standards.
  • KN​95s made after July 1, 2021, must be stamped with “GB-2626-2019.”
  • KN​95s made prior to July 1, 2021, must be stamped with “GB-2626-2006,” and if the expiration date hasn’t passed they are still good.

Protection for kids:

Legitimate N​95s won’t be marketed for children. There are no child-size N​95 masks. But there are legitimate KN​95 and KF​94 masks made for kids. Children under two years old should not wear masks.

If you cannot find legitimate KN​95s or KF​94s:

  • A cloth mask (with two or more layers) worn over a disposable mask improves the poor fit of disposables.
  • Kids should not wear two disposable masks.
  • Masks must be worn over the nose and mouth.
  • A kid’s mask with a nose wire provides a better seal across the top of the mask.

How to verify before you buy:

  • Try to purchase masks directly from a supplier instead of a third-party online seller.
  • Check NIOSH’s list of approved N95 respirators and their manufacturers.
  • Check the NIOSH database of foreign-made respirators sold in the United States. These masks do not have NIOSH approval and aren’t recommended for use by health care workers, but they are suitable for the general population during everyday activities.
  • Be skeptical of companies that overuse words like, “genuine,” legitimate,” or “reputable” when describing their products.

Health Officer and State Epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., recently thanked Oregonians for wearing masks at a higher rate than many other states, helping keep Oregon’s death rate from COVID-19 among the lowest in the country. “When we all wear masks, we protect each other,” said Sidelinger.