Since the pandemic started, our lives have changed, adjusted and readjusted. But a few things have stayed the same — namely, the fact that we need to wear face masks when we’re around others.
However, the emergence of new COVID-19 variants has resulted in updated guidelines and mask mandates. The omicron variant that is currently circulating is highly contagious, and although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and death, you should still mask up.
Jen Caudle, a New Jersey-based family physician and associate professor at Rowan University, told HuffPost that she recommends that people upgrade their masks due to the high transmission rate of the omicron variant.
“It’s estimated to be three times more transmissible than the delta variant,” she said, referring to the variant that was previously the most more prevalent in the U.S. “If we can upgrade our masks, it may help with that.”
You can do so by double masking (the correct way) or by wearing an approved N95 or KN95 mask, which get their names because they filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. KN95 and N95 masks also fit more snugly on your face than cloth or surgical masks, preventing gaps that further expose your mouth and nose to airborne droplets.
The main difference between the two is that KN95 masks are held to China’s standard and can be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, while N95 masks are tested rigorously by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
According to the CDC, 60% of respirator masks sold in the U.S. are counterfeit and do not meet NIOSH requirements, so you’ll want to make sure that your N95 and KN95 masks have the correct approvals.
“Those that are not NIOSH-approved simply may not be as effective for a multitude of reasons,” Caudle said. “We don’t know how they made the mask or what materials they used.”
The CDC says that the easiest way to determine if the mask you’re eyeing is NIOSH-approved is to search for it on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List. All NIOSH-approved respirators have a testing and certification approval number that must be printed on the items. It will look similar to this: TC 84A-XXXX. Respirator masks that earn NIOSH approval will also have specific labeling printed on the facepiece.
There’s also a running list of counterfeit respirator masks on the market that misrepresent NIOSH approval.
Below are five N95 and KN95 masks that had at one point been approved by either NIOSH or the FDA. (Note that many masks were authorized before the FDA revoked their emergency authorizations in June 2021 following an increase in access to N95s).
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Powecom KN95 mask
Bona Fide Masks is the exclusive U.S. and Canada distributor of masks manufactured by Guangzhou Powecom Labor Insurance Supplies Co., LTD. An online version of an executive authenticity statement states the masks are certified by the FDA.
The Powecom KN95 mask comes with latex-free ear loops and an adjustable metal nose piece. Its construction features multiple breathable layers of filtration. And according to Bona Fide’s website, “all respirators manufactured after May 20, 2020 are affixed with an anti-fake sticker that can be used to verify authenticity.”
NIOSH-approved N95 foldable mask
This N95 mask comes with head and neck loops instead of ear loops, plus it has a foldable design that makes it easy to store. The product page includes its NIOSH approval number, which is hyperlinked back to the CDC’s list of NIOSH-approved N95 particulate-filtering facepiece respirators.
KN95 protective face mask
This KN95 mask comes in a box of 20 and claims to effectively resist fine particles. Each mask features ear loops, a nose wire and five layers of fabric. On the product page, you’ll also find an online copy of the certification from the FDA and the owner/operator number that can be searched in the FDA’s database of Establishment Registration and Device Listing.
WellBefore KN95 medical respirator mask
These KN95 masks are wrapped individually and can be ordered in increments of 10, with the price per mask coming out to $1.49. This mask can be found in the FDA’s Establishment Registration and Device Listing by the owner/operator number 10068674.
ALG Health N95 soft shell mask
These N95 masks are NIOSH-approved and have a secure two-strap design instead of an ear loop design, plus an adjustable nose wire. The product page includes photos of multiple NIOSH documents, including the test report and proof of approval.