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Counterfeit N95 and KN95 face masks: How can you spot fakes?

How can you spot a counterfeit N95 or KN95?
This photo illustration depicts a shopper browsing a display of N95s in January 2022 at a Home Depot store in Orlando. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated masking guidance for COVID-19 has you searching for N95s and KN95s masks, then the first thing you should look for is the last thing anyone wants: fakes.

The CDC says about 60% of the KN95s it evaluated in 2020 and 2021 were counterfeit: That is, the items did not work as they were supposed to. Fake N95s, meanwhile, are so prevalent CDC has published a running list of counterfeit models.

So, how can you shop safely? First, know the difference between N95 and KN95 masks. 

The N95 face mask isn't a mere mask. It's a respirator that filters the air you breathe in (rather than just catching the stuff you breathe out, à la an ordinary mask). Even more than that, N95 is an official designation bestowed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. By definition, a properly fitted and worn, NIOSH-certified N95 respirator filters out 95% of air particles. (Surgical-grade N95s, per the CDC, are an N95 subcategory, and should be reserved for those who work in a healthcare or medical setting.)   

As for KN95: That's an international designation, and, per the CDC, filtration standards may vary. There is no KN95 on the market that's been officially graded by a U.S. agency.

If you think it sounds like the N95 is the gold standard for the average American consumer, then you're right. But KN95s can be useful, too, because, for one, they're usually easier to find in stock than N95s, and, two, when properly fitted, the CDC says they "seal tightly to your face" – a quality you should be looking for in any mask or respirator. KN95 masks also tend to be less expensive than N95 masks.

Once you know what N95s and KN95s are, then it should be easier to spot the counterfeits. Remember the part about NIOSH certification, for instance? If an N95 respirator doesn't feature the NIOSH initials -- or, big red flag, if "NIOSH" is misspelled -- then it's not a real N95. 

Here are some other warning signs, per the CDC: 

  • NIOSH markings on KN95s. This is an obvious sign of a counterfeit because, as discussed, the NIOSH has not certified any KN95s. 

  • Respirators bedecked in sequins or other "decorative fabric." Real N95s are all business. 

  • Respirators that you loop around your ears (surgical masks) instead of around your head, à la genuine N95s. 

  • Respirators sold via websites that feature the telltale signs of e-commerce bad actors, such as: pages filled with dummy text; mismatched logos or brand names; typos; and company email addresses that are associated with free email account services.

You should also be on the lookout for kids' masks that claim to be N95s. While N95-style masks for children do exist, children's masks are not evaluated by NIOSH and will not carry an N95 designation. Look for a KN95 or KF94 designation instead.

The CDC's page on counterfeit respirators is a great resource, and contains examples (and pictures!) of N95s and KN95s that the agency has flagged. Here are two other CDC pages you may want to keep at the ready: a list of NIOSH-approved N95s; and, additional respirator-buyer-beware tips.

When you're up to speed, and ready to shop, here's a guide that we put together: a rundown of some leading N95 and KN95 respirators that you can buy, order or check stock on today. 

Kimberly-Clark professional N95 pouch respirator (50 pack)

Kimberly-Clark PROFESSIONAL N95 Pouch Respirator
Amazon

If you're willing to purchase 50 masks, you can get a great per-mask price on these duckbill style masks from Kimberly-Clark. They have a large breathing chamber for comfort, and soft but strong headbands. 

Kimberly-Clark professional N95 pouch respirator (50 pack), $56


3M N95 8210 (20 pack)

3M Personal Protective Equipment Particulate Respirator 8210
Amazon

These 3M masks prevent eyewear fogging and have a foam cushion for maximum comfort on your nose.

3M N95 8210 (20 pack), $27


3M Aura N95 respirator (10 pack)

3M Aura Particulate Respirator 9205+ N95
Home Depot

These disposable fish-style N95 masks by 3M feature an adjustable nose clip, chin tab and a low-profile design that directs air away from the nose panel to reduce eyewear fogging. 

3M Aura N95 respirator (pack), $21


HDX N95 respirator masks (10 pack)

hdx-n95.jpg
Home Depot

This 10-pack of N95s is from Home Depot's house brand HDX. These N95s have an adjustable nose clip and head strap.

HDX N95 respirator masks (10 pack), $19


Happy Life kids KF94 (20 pack)

Happy Life kids KF94
Amazon

These masks, with four layers, come individually packaged, are made of an eco-friendly material, and claim to meet Korea's KF94 standard (94% filtration efficiency). Reviewers recommend this size for older children.

Happy Life kids KF94 (20 pack), $30


Evolvetogether KN95 masks for kids

evolvetogether-kn95-kidsmasks.jpg
Evolvetogether

Evolvetogether, a mask brand that's wildly popular with celebrities, has a line of KN95 masks that includes KN95 masks for kids. The masks are available in black, white, khaki and navy blue. Only the navy blue is available currently.

Evolvetogether KN95 kids' mask (5 pack), $15


Powecom kids KN95-SM respirator mask (10 pack)

Powecom KN95-SM Respirator Mask
Bona Fide Masks

This multi-layer, breathable KN95 mask for kids can be purchased in a 10 pack (or more).

Powecom kids KN95-SM respirator mask (10 pack), $13


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