You see the Omicron variant race around the world and think it might be time to upgrade your mask to a gold standard N95 or K-N95 model. A quick search on Google should find you one, right?
Not so fast, experts say.
According to Anne Miller, CEO of the nonprofit group Project N95, the masks that offer the most protection are actually N95 and K-N95 – both approved by the US government to block 95% of the new coronavirus.
But she warned that there are plenty of counterfeits out there.
The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health tests masks to make sure they meet the standards for what is called “filtration rate,” she explained.
When the pandemic began, lots of masks were submitted to NIOSH for approval as companies sought to monetize the growing demand.
Only a few succeeded.
“Some of these masks were like 20% filtration,” Miller noted. In fact, “over 60% of the masks submitted did not pass NIOSH tests – they did not pass,” she said.
“From my perspective as a consumer, I do not want to shell out my money and get something that I think protects me that is not, and then I have a false sense of security – and then I get sick,” Miller added.
This does not mean that all imported N95 and K-N95 masks are junk. But they must all meet NIOSH standards, Miller said.
Check the numbers
To make sure any masks you buy are authentic, Miller advises consumers to look for the TC number on N95 masks. “It says TC – and then three digits more and then two digits and also a batch number,” she said. Genuine N95 masks also come with a head strap.
For K-N95 masks, Miller said the mask should say, “GB 2626-2019, then a space and then K-N95. If it has not it printed on the front of the mask, it is not made to the standard.”
The mask must also have a brand name on it, Miller said. “When you see a mask that just says K-N95 and no brand, you have no way of knowing who actually produced it, and that’s not good.”
Are there other warning signs that a mask may be fake?
Miller said a safe clue is if the label claims the mask is FDA-approved or that it is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“If you see the FDA logo on the box, if you see anyone marketing their product as FDA approved, it’s almost a guarantee that it’s a substandard or counterfeit product,” Miller said in a statement.
“If you’re registered, you paid $ 5,400 to be registered, and that’s it … The FDA website says the registration does not mean any kind of approval,” Miller said.
Also pay attention to a mask without markings at all, no NIOSH marks or NIOSH is misspelled, decorative substances and any requirements for NIOSH approval for children – NIOSH does not approve respirators for children.
Cost is not a factor
Miller stressed that price is not an indicator of whether a mask is the real thing or not: high-quality masks do not have to be expensive.
“You can buy an American-made N95, NIOSH-rated respirator for 60 or 75 cents, so you don’t have to spend a lot of money,” she said.
It is important to change masks frequently as they wear and become less effective, Miller said. For most, it is good to have several stitches that can be turned. Each mask is good for about 40 hours of use, Miller said.
The trick with N95 and K-N95 masks is to maintain a good seal. Many people may find an N95 uncomfortable, so they may feel better about a K-N95, which has ear straps and may be easier to tolerate.
“They’re not designed for comfort,” Miller said. “They are designed for performance.”
Fit is the key
With regard to other masks, such as fabric masks, Miller says they can be used over a high quality mask as a fashion statement or to keep a mask clean, but they really do not provide enough protection in themselves.
The best way to make sure you get a good mask is to buy them from a reputable source, Miller said.
Expert in infectious diseases Dr. Marc Siegel, a clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, stressed that “masks are not the ultimate protection.”
They can help ward off infection, but they must be worn properly and changed frequently. “By properly worn, I mean a tight fit over the nose,” Siegel said.
He recognized that N95 masks can be uncomfortable to wear and difficult to use, but K-N95 or N95 masks provide the best protection.
“When we say your mask game, it means you’re going for a K-N95 or an N95,” Siegel said.
For more on face masks, see US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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