Looking for N95 or KN95 masks? Where to find them and how to spot fakes

·7 min read
Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

It may be time to reevaluate your mask situation.

The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cloth masks don’t do as well against the omicron variant of the coronavirus as the heavy-duty respirators, like the N95 and the KN95.

And masks are still very much needed to help combat the spread of COVID-19, say health officials.

In fact, mask requirements are still in effect for residents and visitors in Wake, Durham and Orange counties. (Wake County’s mask mandate impacts the unincorporated areas of the county, Garner, Knightdale, Morrisville, Rolesville and Zebulon. Orange and Durham counties require face coverings in public indoor spaces.)

Municipalities and businesses are not mandating the type of mask required, but at least one local college is: N.C. Central University, a historically Black college, requires all faculty members and students to wear KN95 masks in classrooms. The university is distributing KN95 and disposable medical masks to all students living on campus or commuting.

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill are taking matters into their own hands, even without a mandate to wear a specific mask.

The UNC-CH Student Government will distribute 10,000 KN95 and N95 masks to students on campus this week. Undergraduate, graduate and professional students were encouraged to follow student government leaders for more information about where they can get masks on Thursday and Friday. Some people on social media criticized the university administrators for not taking this step themselves.

Duke University also strongly encourages KN95 masks on campus and is distributing them to students faculty and staff.

Here’s what to know about N95 and KN95 masks — what makes them extra protective, where you can find them and how to spot a fake:

Which mask or respirator should I wear?

The NC Department of Health and Human Services updated its mask guidance on Jan. 5 of this year to recommend specific kinds of masks, including N95 and KN95 masks, as well as double-masking and wearing mask fitters to ensure particles are not leaking out.

The CDC says that masks offer protection against all coronavirus variants, but

  • Loosely woven cloth masks offer the least amount of protection.

  • Well-fitted surgical (or “disposable”) masks offer more protection than cloth.

  • Well-fitted respirators — like the N95 and KN95 — offer the highest level of protection.

Here are the Dos and Don’ts when it comes to choosing masks.

Do:

Wear KN95 or N95 respirators: The CDC and NCDHHS both recommend these high-quality respirators that fit well and have multiple layers for more protection. The “95” comes from the fact that these respirators filter at least 95% of airborne particles.

If you don’t have a K95 or an N95, wear a surgical or procedure mask: This is sometimes referred to as a “disposable mask.” For extra layered protection, the CDC and NCHHS recommend stacking a cloth mask on top of this mask. These masks often have a wire on top (called a “nose wire”) to fit the mask around your nose and make it tighter to your face, preventing air from coming out of the top of the mask.

Double mask when wearing cloth: Wear a disposable mask underneath, and make sure that your cloth masks have many layers of breathable, tightly woven fabric, the CDC says. You can check your mask’s level of protection by seeing if it blocks light when held up to a bright light source.

Don’t:

Don’t wear a “surgical” N95, KN95: These masks are specifically labeled “surgical” N95 respirators, and they should be saved for healthcare personnel. The “surgical” label on an N95 differs from a surgical or procedure mask, which are known as “disposable masks.” Those disposable masks usually have a baby blue color, while a “surgical” N95 mask has a set circular shape.

Don’t wear masks with exhalation valves or vents: Masks with these valves and vents let virus particles escape, which defeats the purpose of wearing a mask. And cloth masks that have gaps around the side of the face, or are made of wet and/or dirty material, are not protective.

Don’t use scarves, ski masks or balaclavas: You can wear cold weather gear over your masks, but scarves, ski masks and balaclavas should not be used as mask substitutes.

Don’t wear loosely fitted masks: Masks that are tightly fitted to your face ensure airborne particles do not leak out. Nose wires help keep a mask secure to your face, and mask-fitters can keep a mask snug.

What is an N95 or KN95 mask?

N95s and KN95s are respirators, which are defined differently than masks, but they still cover your mouth, nose and chin.

The Food and Drug Administration defines respirators as personally protective equipment that filter at least 95% of airborne particles. They’re technically called “air purifying respirators.”

Healthcare personnel have used FDA-cleared respirators and masks for years.

N95s and KN95s are “similar” for filtering non-oil-based particles like air pollution and bioaerosols (a.k.a. viruses), said 3M, a multinational company that makes and sells many products, including N95s.

Here’s what to know about N95s:

  • N95s are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a United States federal agency. NIOSH-approved N95s will have the NIOSH name in block letters (or the NIOSH logo) on the front of the respirator, per the CDC.

  • Most N95s don’t have ear loops, but instead, they use two large elastic bands that wrap around your head (called “headbands”).

  • N95s have not been made for children. If you find an N95 in a child size, it’s a counterfeit. However, N95s come in small and medium sizes, which may work for children.

Here’s what to know about KN95s:

  • KN95s are the most widely available respirators that meet an international standard, the CDC says. They’re produced in China.

  • They’re similar to N95s, but these respirators have ear loops, meeting Chinese standards, per the New York Times.

  • KN95s can come in children’s sizes.

KF94s are South Korean standard masks that filter 94% of airborne particles, hence the name. KF94s also have ear loops and come in children’s sizes, per NPR.

Where can I find N95 or KN95 masks?

Check out Project N95, a nonprofit organization that links customers with reliable PPE (including NIOSH-approved respirators and masks), to find genuine equipment. Shop their equipment at shop.projectn95.org/all.

For a recent story on masks and respirators, Nicole Vars McCullough, vice president for personal safety at 3M, told The New York Times that it’s helpful to check manufacturer websites to see who sells and distributes their masks.

“Big retailers like Home Depot and Lowes typically work directly with manufacturers approved by NIOSH or their distributors, so if you find an N95 mask in a major retail store you can be confident you’re getting the real thing,” the Times wrote.

The N95 or KN95 offerings at CVS, Walmart and Rite Aid were out of stock (as of Jan. 18).

Home Depot and Lowes seem to have them available for online purchase, as of Jan. 18, as well as for pickup in Raleigh and Durham.

The CDC has a complete list for NIOSH-approved N95 respirators. Be sure to click through the index at the bottom of the webpage to find the full A to Z list, which can be found at cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/disp_part/n95list1.html. You can check brands and TC approval numbers on respirators you’d like to buy against this list to ensure legitimacy.

How can I spot a fake N95 or KN95 mask?

The CDC has tips for ensuring your N95 respirator is a legitimate, NIOSH-approved one. Here are signs that the respirator may be counterfeit:

  • No markings on the respirator

  • No TC approval number on the respirator or headband

  • No NIOSH markings, or NIOSH is spelled incorrectly

  • Decorations or add-ons (like sequins)

  • Claims that it’s a NIOSH-approved children’s mask (as NIOSH has not approved a N95, or any kind of respiratory protection, for children)

  • Ear loops instead of headbands

NIOSH has a list with photographs of counterfeit N95 masks on the CDC website at cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/usernotices/counterfeitResp.html. When NIOSH becomes aware of counterfeit respirators, the agency said it will post them to this website.

3M also has a webpage detailing fraud and counterfeit respirators at 3m.com/3M/en_US/worker-health-safety-us/covid19/covid-fraud.

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