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In response to the spread of the omicron variant across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its guidance on masking for the public, stating that people "can choose respirators such as N95s and KN95s."
While these kinds of masks aren't required for everyone to wear, experts we spoke with say they offer the highest degree of filtration available.
"I think the key is to prioritize getting N95-caliber masks the same way you would making sure the seatbelts in your car work or that you have a fire extinguisher at home," Ranu Dhillon, an epidemic response specialist at Harvard Medical School, said to Shop TODAY. "These masks are critical for protecting against infection indoors and among crowds, especially amidst this Omicron surge."
While experts are recommending N95 masks, which are regulated by the United States, there has been a lot of interest around KN95 masks. However, KN95 masks are not regulated by the U.S. or approved by NIOSH, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a research center that provides recommendations for the safety of workers and houses the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, NPPTL, which is the arm of NIOSH that regulates N95 masks.
We spoke to experts about the differences between mask types as well as when to wear masks with higher filtration protections, and what to look for when shopping for an N95-caliber masks.
When to wear a N95 mask
"What the CDC is recommending, really, is a well-fitting mask, or the highest-level of protection that you can get. If you're caring for somebody with COVID-19 and you have access to a N95 mask or KN95 mask, you should probably be wearing that," Waleed Javaid, MD, director of Infection Prevention and Control for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, and Professor of Infectious Disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told us.
"If you are at risk or you're immunocompromised and you have a weakened immune system or certain other issues, you might want to wear a KN95 or something similar," Javaid continued. Those who are traveling, on public transportation for extended periods of time or are in crowded areas should also consider wearing a N95 or KN95 mask, he said.
What's the difference among N95s, KN95s and KF94s?
N95s, KN95s and KF94s offer different levels of particle filtration.
“N95 means it is filtering 95% of the small particles, 94 means it is filtering 94% of the particles. So (KF94s are) probably not going to be much worse than the KN95s themselves," Javaid said.
N95s and KN95s both filter 95% of airborne particles. However, N95s are regulated and approved by CDC’s NIOSH, while KN95s are regulated by China and do not have approval from NIOSH, Dhillon said. KN95s are the most widely available respirators that meet an international standard, according to the CDC. As of Jan. 22, 2022, the CDC clarified that the public can choose to wear KN95s, since they offer more protection than surgical masks. KF94s are regulated by South Korea and filter out 94% of particles.
Beyond filtration, there is also a difference in fit between the two more popular KN95 and N95 masks.
"One of the differences between the KN95 and the N95 is in the way it attaches to your face. Most of them have the ear loops, and with that, you're not getting as good of a fit as the N95s that have the double band that go around the back of the head," Stephen Ferrara, DNP, associate dean of Clinical Affairs at Columbia Nursing, told Shop TODAY.
Having straps that go around the head, as opposed to ear loops, "allows for strong fit (and) seal around the mouth and nose," Dhillon said.
Are N95 and KN95 masks reusable?
It depends on where you wear it and the activities you perform while wearing it.
“N95 respirators and KN95 masks are reusable if used in a non-healthcare setting. The largest obstacle that prevents them from being reused is if they are misshapen, completely soiled, or wet," Bernard Camins, MD, medical director for Infection Prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System, told Shop TODAY. Even if you attempt to dry the mask (which is not recommended), Camins says it will not work properly.
But, as long as you take proper care of the mask and are not using it in a healthcare setting or during strenuous activity where it may get wet, he says you can likely wear it for up to 5-7 days.
"Storing them in a paper bag in between uses is a good way to make them last," Camins said.
How to shop for N95, KN95 masks
Overall, whichever mask you choose should fit properly and feel comfortable. "The key, as it remains, as it was (at the beginning of the pandemic), is the fit," Ferrara said. "It has to be a good fit and it has to be worn properly; so that's over the nose and mouth."
Dhillon pointed out that "not all N95-caliber masks are the same or the right fit for everyone," so, when supplies are more readily available, you'll want to see which make and model you like most.
While the CDC clarified that the public can choose to wear genuine KN95s, since they offer more protection than surgical masks, you want to find a 95 mask that has been verified for quality and avoid fakes, especially with KN95s, which are not regulated by the United States. As many as "60% of KN95s don’t actually meet their purported standards when they were tested by NIOSH," Dhillon told us, and the CDC also warned. When purchasing a higher filtration mask, especially a KN95, you want to keep an eye out for counterfeits. When it comes to catching a counterfeit N95s, KN95s or KF94s, Ferrara says one way to spot a fake is to look for whether the company name is stamped on the masks. Though, you should also be following guidelines like validating quality.
If you decide to buy a KN95 mask, the CDC recommends on their website to validate “that the product you intend to purchase was tested by an ISO/IEC 17025-accredited test laboratory in the country that holds the standard.” A list of accredited laboratories is available through the CDC website.
If you are unable to access N95s, KN95s or KF94s, Dhillon suggests using better-quality surgical masks in tandem with a mask fitter.
For N95 masks, the CDC has a list of NIOSH-approved respirators, and we've rounded up ones that are on that list and available to shop. We have also included two KN95 masks that meet expert-recommendations for multiple layers and have been tested in a ISO/IEC 17025-accredited laboratory.
N95s and KN95 masks
This disposable N95 respirator filters out 95% of airborne particles, according to the brand, and secures to your head via two headband-style straps. The brand shares the mask has a curved ergonomic design to allow for more comfort. You can grab them in packs of 10.
DemeTech's DT-N95-FH masks come in sets of 20. They also feature headband-style straps for a close fit and are made from five layers of material, which helps filter 98% of airborne particles, according to the brand. The company also says that the edges of the mask are heat-sealed to help prevent tearing.
Harley's N95 mask features a padded nose-piece for added comfort and is made from "high efficiency, low-resistance meltblown, electrostatic cotton," according to the brand. It also uses headband-style bands to secure the mask to your face.
3M's N95 mask features a three-panel design with a chin tab and foam nose pad with a bendable nose wire designed to give an adjustable fit, while the headband-style straps keep it secured to your face. They arrive individually wrapped and are available in a pack of three.
Each of Evolvetogether's KN95 masks features the company’s name on the outside and are made with six lightweight layers that filter more than 95% of airborne particles, according to the brand. It features a hidden nose bridge for an adjustable fit and is made from hypoallergenic and latex-free materials. The masks were tested at SGS-CSTC Standards Technical Services Co., Ltd. Testing Center in Shanghai, the brand confirmed to Shop TODAY in an email.
These masks from WellBefore are made from five layers of fabric, including two melt blown fabric layers. Each mask arrives individually wrapped and has been tested at the Guangdong Testing Institute of Product Quality Supervision in Guangzhou to the GB 2626-2019 standard, the brand confirmed to Shop TODAY via email.
For more stories like this, check out:
- How to choose the best face mask filter, according to experts
- Need a disposable mask? Here's how to choose one, according to experts
- Should you be double masking? Expert advice on how to do it