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We already know that all face masks are not equal, and there is a difference between them. As the pandemic continues, professional masks are getting attention again, especially because they can filter particles better than a cloth mask. This guide compares N95 masks, KN95 masks and KF94 masks – three popular and protective mask types – to help you buy smart masks and .
N95 masks have been popular since the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. These masks are extremely tight thanks to the elastic headbands and an adjustable metal seal over the nose, keeping the mask close to the skin.
They filter 95% of the particles as small as 0.3 microns. (Although SARS-CoV-2 virus particles are about 0.1 microns in size on their own, keep in mind that virus particles are usually attached to something larger, such as the respiratory droplets generated while speaking).
N95s undergo the rigorous inspection and certification as outlined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and only after they are certified are they approved as medical-grade masks. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association calls N95s the “mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens.”
Unfortunately, these masks have been in short supply for almost a year now as they are part of the personal protective equipment health professionals need when treating patients with. As such, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that N95s be reserved for health professionals only, not the general public.
- Percentage of filtered aerosol particles: 95% (but see below)
- NIOSH approved: No
- Who should wear one: Anyone can wear these masks in low to medium risk environments, such as to the supermarket or an outdoor gathering.
KN95 masks are considered the Chinese equivalent of N95 masks. They have a tent-like shape that creates an air pocket between your nose and the fabric, making them attractive to many people: they feel through more easily, less obstructive and suffocating.
However, because KN95 masks are not monitored by the US Mask Regulatory Authority, NIOSH, they are not considered as effective as N95 masks. Manufacturers of KN95s can seek approval from the FDA for healthcare use. In fact, the FDA has already granted EUA to several KN95s.
In September 2020, a report from the Emergency Care Research Institute raised concerns about fraudulent KN95 masks. According to the report, up to 70% of KN95 masks imported from China do not meet the same filtration efficiency as N95 masks. ECRI has issued a warning because many hospitals ordered these masks, which could pose contamination risks in medical centers treating patients for COVID-19.
Outside of healthcare and high-risk settings, this is not necessarily a problem. The general public can benefit from wearing KN95 masks. Even KN95 masks that do not meet NIOSH filtration efficiency standards are likely still more protective than standard surgical masks and cloth face masks made of cotton, nylon, or some other non-medical fabric.
- Percentage of filtered aerosol particles: 94%
- NIOSH approved: No
- Who should wear one: Anyone can wear these masks in low to medium risk environments, such as to the grocery store or an outdoor gathering.
KF94 masks are now more and more popular. The “KF” stands for “Korean filter” and the 94 refers to the filtration efficiency of the masks. By South Korean government standards, these masks filter 94% of particles down to 0.3 microns in size. They feature ear loops, an adjustable nose bridge and side flaps for a tight fit.
In a very small study from August 2020 (only seven people), researchers found that KF94 masks are just as effective at filtering SARS-CoV-2 as N95 masks. Unlike KN95s that meet the certification standards of the Chinese government, KF94 masks have not yet received an EUA from the FDA for healthcare use.
Still, like KN95s, KF94s are a steep upgrade from the single-layer cotton face covering you’re likely to walk around with.
Avoid counterfeit masks
Fraudulent face masks have become a problem with Amazon and other major online retailers. Manufacturers claim to sell N95s, KN95s, or KF94s, when the masks they sell do not actually meet the same standards as masks inspected by the US, Chinese, or Korean government. The CDC has a running list of non-NIOSH approved KN95s, KF94s, and other protective masks that have undergone filtration testing. The list also includes known forgeries.
It’s nearly impossible to spot counterfeit masks, especially when shopping online, but there are a few steps you can take to ensure you get the best protection possible:
- Buy from reputable retailers, such as CVS or Walgreens, which have control processes for wholesale products.
- Look closely at seller ratings and product reviews
- Beware of new sellers popping up out of nowhere
- Check the product listing and URL to make sure the names match
- Double mask if you are unsure of the quality of your masks
Other COVID-19 fraud and scams include, and and .
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care practitioner if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.