N95, KN95 masks: Where to buy them to prevent COVID – USA TODAY

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COVID-19 continues to be an issue as kick off 2023 and approach the three-year anniversary of the pandemic. While mask mandates have long been lifted across the country, some institutions have recently reinstated them following the holidays, including a few school districts.
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A large factor in the rising cases is the latest variant, XBB.1.5 which is said to be five times more contagious than omicron and accounts for more than 40% of new cases. Compounding this are other sicknesses such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Fortunately, KN95 and N95 masks remain an effective way to curb the spread of COVID-19 and other sicknesses given their 95% efficacy. Here’s everything you need to know when buying masks and where you can buy legitimate ones online.
►Related: As COVID turns 3, experts worry where the next pandemic will come from – and if we’ll be ready
N95 masks have long been used in healthcare settings before the COVID-19 pandemic as a tool to achieve highly efficient filtration against airborne particles. However, as the virus has evolved and become more contagious, experts have advocated for the use of N95 and K95 respirator masks to prevent the spread of the virus outside of healthcare settings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone over the age of two should wear a well-fitting mask wherever the COVID-19 Community Level is high, regardless of one’s vaccination status.
The argument for wearing an N95 respirator is that it’s the gold standard of face coverings. With the proper fit, masks approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) can filter up to 95% of particles in the air. When dealing with a respiratory virus like this coronavirus, N95 masks can make a large difference in protection from infection.
In February of 2022, the CDC posted a report showing the efficacy of various masks, with respirators, surgical masks and cloth masks lowering the odds of COVID-19 infection by 83%, 66% and 56%, respectively.
Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, recommends upgrading masks: “If you’re in an indoor public setting, that’s where we recommend that you wear a well-fitted, high-quality mask. With how transmissible it is, I feel that we should all be wearing a higher quality, better mask.”
You may have seen talk about both N95 and KN95 masks, sometimes—and inaccurately—used interchangeably. At face value, they’re similar, and both are rated with 95% filtration efficiency. The main difference between the two boils down to what country or organization certified the standard of quality of the masks. N95 masks are NIOSH-certified, while KN95s—which the CDC notes are the most widely available mask—are manufactured in China and meet standards specific to China. KF94 masks, which provide a unique shape in comparison to N95s and KN95s, are manufactured in Korea and meet the Korean standard requirements.
In 2020, the FDA granted emergency-use authorization (EUA) for some KN95 masks due to N95 masks supply being scarce. However, the FDA has since revoked the EUA of non-NIOSH-approved respirators because some KN95 masks may not necessarily meet U.S. standards in terms of filtration. What’s more, the CDC reports that in 2020 and 2021, 60% of KN95 respirators in the U.S. did not meet quality standards.  Because of this gap, it may be best to stick to NIOSH-approved respirators approved by the CDC.
However, some people may prefer KN95s and KF94s for everyday use in non-medical settings. N95s can feel restrictive for some due to their protective layered construction, so a KN95 or KF94 could be a suitable alternative for those who are not comfortable wearing an N95 for long periods of time. “I recently upgraded to using more KN95s —upgrading meaning from either cloth masks or surgical masks—for indoor public settings,” says Assoumou. “If you can find a KN95 or KF94 mask, those are helpful because they’re just a little more comfortable and tolerable.”
When shopping for an N95 mask, you can check the CDC’s list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators to confirm that the mask you’re looking at has been tested and meets NIOSH regulations. All masks we list as “NIOSH-approved” have been cross-referenced with the NIOSH-approved list.
You can choose to wear “industrial” N95 masks that are often sold at hardware stores. “The FDA expanded under emergency uses authorization approval for industrial respirators that are not traditionally used in healthcare settings,” Dr. Cassandra Pierre, infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center, tells us. You’ll still want to make sure that the industrial N95 masks are on that NIOSH-approved list and provide a proper, tight fit on your face. 
If you’re on the hunt for N95 respirator masks for kids, know that N95s are nearly non-existent in kids’ sizes, as parenting staff writer Janelle Randazza reports. The NIOSH only regulates products for adults—so, while an N95 mask might not be an option for your children, protective KN95 or KF94 masks designed for smaller faces or kids are an alternative solution. Many of them are made from the same brands that provide certified N95 masks—such as Powecom and Well+ Before—and are sold by reputable distributors like Bona Fide Masks and Project N95.
There are many pharmacies that offer free masks, though websites are not tracking current inventory so you’ll want to call the store to confirm their supply before going to get any.
As for options you can buy right now, the Reviewed team has carefully vetted several of the PPE products that we’re recommending. As we mentioned, KN95s can be especially hard to buy considering the influx of counterfeit options out there. Reviewed’s health and fitness editor, Esther Bell, has ordered KN95 masks from various brands and retailers to better judge the quality and authenticity of the masks.
Here are a few major retailers and trusted online storefronts where you can buy N95 and KN95 masks right now:
Project N95 is a non-profit organization that helps to make PPE—like high-filtration masks—accessible to those who need it. The company goes through comprehensive vetting processes to ensure the distribution of legitimate PPE. Assoumou purchases her KN95 masks from Project N95.
This brand was formed by the long-standing Ball Chain Manufacturing Company, the world’s larger manufacturer of ball chain used to crate dog tags and chains for blinds. In 2020, the manufacturing company created Bona Fide Masks in response to the shortage of PPE in 2020. We ordered Powecom KN95 masks from Bona Fide Masks ourselves and received what we believe to be authentic KN95s. 
If you’re looking to purchase a KN95 from WellBefore, Reviewed’s health and fitness writer Esther Bell recommends opting for the WellBefore KN95 with adjustable straps to ensure the right fit as the mask without straps may be too large for some faces.
When shopping for an N95, the possibility of coming across counterfeit respirator masks is a reality, especially as demand for these masks continues to surge. “Counterfeit manufacturers are becoming more and more sophisticated,” says Jim Churchman, vice president, procurement and supply chain, at Duke University Health System. “As a result, the ability to discern nuances that alert to a product being counterfeit is becoming increasingly difficult.”
These masks may look and even feel like N95 masks, but they may not meet the necessary testing and criterion of real N95s. The most important thing to look for to judge authenticity that the respirator has been tested and certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “Both the mask and its packaging should be labeled “NIOSH-approved,” says Dr. Stella Hines, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. 
The CDC says some signs of a counterfeit respirator include “NIOSH” being spelled incorrectly or the lack of an approval number on the respirator or headband. In addition, N95s specifically should use headbands, not ear loops—ones with ear loops may be real KN95s or KF94s, but not real N95s. You can double-check to see if a particular N95 brand or model is NIOSH-approved by taking a look at the NIOSH-Certified Equipment List.
For more tips on spotting a counterfeit mask, read here.
N95 masks are the optimal choice—but they typically happen to be the most expensive, too. Using masks designed to be disposable like N95s or surgical masks can also feel like a wasteful choice in comparison to a reusable cloth mask. While N95 and KN95 masks are single-use masks, many people have found ways to reuse them effectively.
When there was a shortage of PPE in the country, the CDC approved strategies like the limited re-use of face masks if absolutely necessary. It’s most effective to use a fresh face mask every day and replace it as needed throughout the day. If that’s not an option, you can consider rotating N95 masks every couple of days, storing the mask in a breathable paper bag in between uses, a method that many healthcare professionals used when PPE supply was limited. “For an N95, we’d recommend you switch [the mask] every day,” says Assoumou. “But, you can rotate them. If you have three masks, [for example], you could number them and switch them around.” 
Keep in mind that, over time, reusing your mask can begin to degrade its protective qualities over time. Reuse at your discretion and look for any visible signs of mask wear and tear, such as fraying, stretched-out straps or deterioration of the mask itself. Avoid wearing masks that are wet or visibly worn out.
While N95 respirators are best in class, you’ll get the best level of protection when you’re wearing masks correctly. Make sure your mask covers your mouth and nose. Furthermore, your mask should fit snugly as opposed to tightly.
In addition, the CDC says you should never combine a KN95 mask with any other mask—this means no layering or double-masking at all when you’re wearing a KN95. For N95s, Pierre recommends the same guidance, avoiding any extra layering. “Doubling up on N95s is not my recommendation—it’s already uncomfortable enough and I don’t think it’s giving you any additional benefits. These are already filtering out 95% or over 95% of those airborne particles if you’re wearing a credible N95.” 
Additional reporting by Amanda Tarlton.
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