Which masks are OK to buy when you can’t find an N95? We asked some experts

·6 min read
A sign on the door of Hunky Dory, a record store and smoke shop in Durham, on Aug. 11, 2021, instructs patrons to wear a mask inside at all times, including in between sips of beer. (Julia Wall/jwall@newsobserver.com)

The NC Department of Health and Human Services recently issued new guidance on mask wearing, recommending heavy-duty N95 and KN95 respirators instead of loosely woven cloth masks, which research shows offer less protection from the spread of COVID-19.

Since the new guidance, which echoes that of the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, demand for the higher performance masks has increased.

The News & Observer published a story recently on N95s and KN95s masks, offering advice on where to find them and how to spot fakes, prompting a reader to ask about M95i masks.

Masks labeled M95i are manufactured in the United States by a company called Lutema and are advertised as protecting the wearer from over 99% of dust and air pollution.

We reached out to mask experts at NC State University and Virginia Tech to learn more.

What exactly is an M95i mask?

According to the company website, the M95i is a “bi-fold cup mask with consistent ultra-high filtration” — a five-layer mask without an exposed foam pad underneath. The “i” stands for “international standard.” The M95c and M95k masks on the website are the same, but intended for children and small adults.

What does all that mean?

“There is no M95i standard that I know of,” Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineering professor with expertise in airborne transmission of viruses, told The N&O through a university spokesperson.

Lutema’s products are not included on the CDC’s list of counterfeit masks, but Marr recommends consulting the CDC site (cdc.gov/niosh/npptl) for information on counterfeit masks and other misleading claims.

Bryan Ormond, an assistant professor of textile engineering at NC State University, told The N&O that the M95i masks advertised by Lutema appear to protect well, but that “they have a higher breathing resistance than comparable products.”

“My guess is that [Lutema is] making a product that is KN95-like, but it doesn’t have any direct certification or regulation that is overseeing it,” Ormond said.

Without this regulation, there’s no good way to know if every M95i (or children’s equivalent) that’s produced and shipped out will perform the same, he said.

Aaron Collins, known as the Mask Nerd, achieved a 97% filtration when he tested Lutema’s M95i in a YouTube review in March 2021. Collins has been testing masks for the last two years, and his data can be found at on a google drive at bit.ly/3tWDMEz.

Collins Tweeted in August: “If you like the Vida Kids KN95 mask, you are going to love the Lutema M95c kids mask. Wink wink. I guess I can say the Vida’s are protective without having to test them. Little high on the pressure drop but if your kid likes it and it fits well rock it.”

Should you buy knockoff masks that aren’t N95/KN95?

It’s likely that most knockoffs will still be more protective than cloth masks, Ormond said.

“Most products that have the nonwoven type material that these are made of are going to be better than the majority of cloth masks anyway, so then you are looking for what fits the best,” Ormond said.

The supplies of high-quality N95 and KN95 respirators are much better now than they were even a few months ago, he said.

Home Depot and Lowe’s Home Improvement both stock approved N95s and work with manufacturers and suppliers. But places like Amazon are less reliable: “You don’t know where they are coming from, and you can have sellers pop up one day and be gone the next.”

If you’re having trouble finding the NIOSH-approved N95s and KN95s, you can use Collins’ YouTube videos and spreadsheets to track the non-approved ones.

Also, if you don’t have an N95 or a KN95, the CDC recommends double masking with a surgical (or disposable) and a cloth mask, ensuring the surgical mask is the one touching your face.

Why should you seek out an approved N95?

N95 respirators are preferred because there’s a rigorous test standard, as well as a regulatory body that strictly oversees and audits the process, when manufacturing them in the United States, Ormond said.

“Without the regulatory oversight, there is no good way to know if every mask that is shipped out performs the same,” he said.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s list of approved N95 manufacturers can be found at cdc.gov/niosh/topics/respirators.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of counterfeit masks and ones that claim to be NIOSH-approved N95s but aren’t. You can find this list, complete with photographs and detailed descriptions, at cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/usernotices.

Is a KN95 mask as good as an N95?

KN95 respirators 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.

“The KN95 is only a test standard and doesn’t have the regulatory body overseeing it, especially here in the United States,” Ormond said.

Here are the Dos and Don’ts when it comes to choosing masks, The N&O previously reported:

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 NCDHHS 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.