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It's clear now more than ever that wearing a face mask is an important way to protect yourself and others from the spread of COVID-19. And, with the rise of the highly infectious Omicron variant, there's been plenty of talk about which type of face mask is best.
One face mask has been consistently considered the best: N95 respirators. In case you're not familiar with it, an N95 mask filters out at least 95 percent of airborne particles, per the Food and Drug Administration. It's also designed to form a close seal over your nose and mouth. Overall, an N95 mask is thought to provide the highest level of protection you can get.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says that N95 masks can be used by the general public, after more than a year of stating that they should be reserved for healthcare workers. However, it can be tricky to find them online.
If you want to buy an N95, just know this: There's an incredibly high level of counterfeit N95s floating around out there.
So, how can you tell the difference between real and fake N95s? It's not always easy.
"A well-made counterfeit is going to be impossible to tell unless you have intimate knowledge of the original product and their manufacturing methods or, at minimum, a known good mask to compare to,"Aaron Collins, a mechanical engineer in Minnesota and self-described "citizen scientist" who has been testing the filtration properties of different kinds of masks and sharing his findings on YouTube, tells Yahoo Life. Collins says you technically need specialty lab equipment to tell what level of protection an N95 mask offers, and that same equipment is often used by public health authorities to hunt down counterfeits.
At a basic level, an N95 respirator typically has a cup-like or duck bill design, a metal nose bridge, and elastic straps that are worn headband-style. Anything outside of that description is probably not a real N95, says infectious disease expert Aline M. Holmes, a clinical associate professor at Rutgers University School of Nursing, tells Yahoo Life.
The CDC has a list of approved N95 masks that you can use to look up a mask that you're considering buying, Holmes says. But some counterfeit companies are so good, they'll copy the information on the list and try to pass it off as their own mask. (Case in point, millions of counterfeit masks seized last year that were labeled as being made by popular N95 maker 3M.)
The CDC has released a list of signs that an N95 might be counterfeit:
No markings at all on the filtering face piece respirator
No approval (TC) number on filtering face piece respirator or headband
No NIOSH markings
NIOSH spelled incorrectly
Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins)
Claims for the of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children)
Filtering face piece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands
"It's anticipated that we're going to need to continue to wear masks for a while, and some people are just trying to get a piece of the market," Holmes says. "It's kind of like what happened with hand sanitizers in the beginning of the pandemic—we started seeing stuff that was cheaply made and not high quality."
Overall, Collins recommends wearing "any high-filtration mask you can get your hands on." His personal recommendation: N95 masks, KF94 masks, aka the Korean version of an N95 mask, and KN95 masks, the Chinese version. After that, he recommends using a surgical mask with a mask fitter.
Shopping for a new mask? Consider these.
WWDOLL KN95 Face Masks, White, 25 Pack
Testing has determined that these masks filter out 96.1 percent of particles, making them similar in function to an N95 mask. WWDOLL masks have five layers of protection: two layers of non-woven cloth, two layers of melt-blown fabric, and one layer of hot-air cotton to moisture from your breath, wicking it away from skin.
People swear by the WWDOLLs in the reviews. “Sturdy construction, more quality appearance than other KN95 masks selling for less,” one five-star reviewer wrote, noting that it “looks great with professional uniforms.” Another likes “how tight fitting it is.”
Shop it: WWDOLL KN95 Face Masks, $50, amazon.com
Powecom KN95 Masks (10-pack)
These masks are authorized by the FDA under the name of the manufacturer, Guangzhou Powecom. The masks have a classic KN95 style and flexible elastic ear loops. An adjustable metal nose bridge helps you to get a snug fit.
"I had bad experiences with different masks before and I was curious if I will really like this mask. It was easy use and easy to breathe with this mask," a five-star fan said. "Finally I found what I am looking for."
Shop it: Powecom KN95 Masks (10-pack), $22, amazon.com
N95 Mask Co. KN95 Face Mask, 40-Pack
Need to replenish your supplies? This 50-pack of KN95 masks is for you. “They are high quality, fit well, cover the nose, mouth and chin and are very sturdy,” a happy customer wrote in the reviews. “You can easily breathe through them and can keep them on comfortably for a long time.”
Shop it: N95 Mask Co. KN95 Face Mask, 40-Pack, $110 (was $150), n95maskco.com
The reviews quoted above reflect the most recent versions at the time of publication.
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