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The CDC is warning consumers to avoid fake N95, KN95, and KF94 masks circulating online.
New mask standards suggest consumers should aim for NIOSH-approved N95 masks, followed by KN95 or KF94 masks that have been vetted.
Experts share exactly how to make sure your face mask is real, and not a counterfeit.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have been vocal about face masks and if they can help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Now, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning Americans about the occurance of fake protective masks. But figuring out how to spot fake N95, KN95, and KF94 masks is a bit more involved than simply doing a quick internet search of the best masks on Amazon.
Counterfeit masks have been a growing problem throughout the pandemic. An Emergency Care Research Institute press release from September 2020 found that up to 70% of China-made KN95 masks tested didn’t meet the minimum standards and should be reserved for non-COVID-19 related circumstances. Additionally, since April 15, 2020, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigation has seized over 21.2 million counterfeit respirator masks. So how did we end up with such a confusing standard for what makes a good mask? And are we to know what masks are even real?
“At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, PPE (personal protective equipment) became scarce for healthcare workers and people on the frontline,” explains Bill Taubner, president of Ball Chain Mfg. Co Inc. and Bona Fide Masks, the exclusive distributor in the United States for both Powecom KN95 and Harley KN95 products. He says that at the time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had initially approved KN95 masks from China when N95 masks weren’t available, but since, many tests have found that KN95 masks coming from the country don’t meet the rigorous standards that masks in the U.S. do. This is likely because, without proper testing equipment, it’s difficult to determine if the filtering material meets the proper efficacy, Taubner says.
The FDA has since revoked its approval of these masks for medical use. Meanwhile, the CDC has authorized only a handful of approved N95 manufacturers and has changed its standards to suggest using N95 for the best protection, followed by KN95 and KF94 masks for non-medical settings.
What are the differences between N95, KN95, and KF94 masks?
To help break down the three types of masks you should be reaching for, Anne Miller, Executive Director of Project N95, the national critical equipment clearinghouse for personal protective equipment, COVID-19 diagnostic tests, and critical equipment, breaks down the differences.
N95 masks. These masks are from the U.S. and almost always have a head strap that goes around the back of the head. They need to have a NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) approved stamp on them to ensure they’ve met U.S. standards of 95% filtrations. These masks tend to be rounder and flatter.
KN95 masks. These masks meet the Chinese standard of masks and have 95% filtration. The standards are very similar to those in the U.S., but there’s limited testing, making them much harder to standardize. These masks almost always have earloops and look like a duck-bill.
KF94 masks. These masks meet the Korean standard and have 94% filtration. They appear circular and flat, often have ear loops, and are less subject to counterfeit products.
The tricky part is, a counterfeit medical mask may be difficult to spot. But here’s how to avoid fake N95, KN95, and KF94 masks so you can stay safe.
Research the supplier
Probably the number one tip from experts and the CDC is to do your diligence and research the supplier. If you’re buying from a third-party retailer, like Amazon, be sure to also check transaction history, the contact information attached to the company, and reviews to ensure that the product is legitimate, according to the CDC.
Taubner adds that ensuring the supplier you buy from is reputable, deals directly with the factory, and is very transparent is key to getting a real product. Miller suggests shopping retailers like Home Depot, Loews, or other reputable third-party sellers for more confidence.
Look for NIOSH-approved products
According to the CDC, N95 masks that have approval from NIOSH meet rigorous U.S. standards and testing to be considered the best possible medical mask. A true NIOSH-approved respirator will have an approval label on or within the packaging itself and include an abbreviated approval on the respirator itself, according to the CDC.
Additionally, masks like KN95 and KF94 can not have NIOSH approval, and any company that claims they do is likely providing fake masks. These masks have their own set of international standards to meet. Though this FDA list no longer suggests these masks for healthcare use, it provides guidance for the average person to ensure their masks were previously tested and are not counterfeit, Taubner says.
Check for manufacturing stamps
Miller says that N95 companies who register with NIOSH have it printed on the respirator itself in block letters and the manufacturing number TC-84A will be printed as well. The CDC has provided a visual aid for NIOSH-approved N95 respirators.
Additionally, KN95 masks will have GB2626 printed on them with 2006 or 2019 listed. These markings indicate a quality product. Additionally, the company name is likely printed on the product, Miller says.
Avoid decorative additions
If a respirator includes any kind of decorative fabrics or add-ons, it’s likely a counterfeit, according to the CDC. The mask should be one single color, include a nose-bridge wire that is straight, have elastic that hasn’t been used, and the face mask fit should feel comfortable.
Know your earloops vs. head straps
Any product claiming to be an N95 with earloops is a counterfeit product, according to the CDC. As of now, all N95 products have headbands that go around the head to provide the best seal, Miller says. She adds that there is one strapless N95 mask variety on the market that sticks to your face, and we may start seeing N95 masks that have earloops because Americans seem to like the look and feel of those better. But, in general, true N95 masks that are currently on the market will only have the full head straps. In comparison, KN95 and KF94 masks are sold with ear loops.
Read official terminology carefully
Phrases like legitimate, genuine, or unlimited stock are easily identifiable as counterfeit products, as any true medical mask retailer wouldn’t use those phrases. Additionally, be wary of grammar, typos, and errors throughout the website, like blank pages, odd privacy policies, broken links, or a misspelled domain, the CDC says.
As of now, the CDC says there are no child-approved respirator protectors, so any product that claims to be approved for children is likely fake. Miller adds that any products that call themselves M94, F95, or other variations of N95 are also fake, as these are not real standards.
Look for the expiration date
Miller says that N95 masks have a five-year shelf life and KN95 masks have a two-to-three-year expiration date, and there should be a paper ticket inside the packaging that indicates when it was manufactured. This will help you ensure the product is still up to standard.
Be mindful of price
There’s no need to drop $50 on a few masks. Miller says that if these products are real, they shouldn’t be expensive. In fact, though there was once a point where the masks were pricey due to supply chain issues, most N95 and KN95 masks are less than one dollar a piece now.
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