As the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to work its way through our communities, face masks are still a critical tool in slowing its spread. However, not all masks are equal.
To be clear, any mask is better than no mask. You should aim for one that fits well and minimizes gaps between the mask and your face. But if you’re wondering which masks are more effective, here’s some information you should know.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidelines to clarify that while still helpful, cloth masks are not the best masks for preventing the transmission of COVID-19. Face masks that use medical-grade material and include what are called high-filtration respirators are more effective. They are referred to commonly as N95, KN95 or KF94 masks.
Why respirator face masks are better
Much of the discussion surrounding the benefits of face masks include how they block droplets and particles the wearer breathes, sneezes or coughs from spreading to others. However, many masks don’t block the virus itself, only their common method of transmission. Respirators not only block droplets that might carry the COVID-19 virus, but also filter out other particles in the air.
Three types of respirators that are recommended by the CDC are the N95, KN95 and the KF94. While no mask can guarantee zero transmission of the COVID-19 virus, these offer a much higher level of protection when well-fitted to the wearer’s face.
The different types of respirator face masks
While respirators are more effective at protecting you from the COVID-19 virus than cloth or surgical masks, they aren’t the same. Let’s learn more about what the letters and numbers in the name of each mask means.
- N95: These masks are considered the gold standard for masks available to the general public. When worn properly, they create a tight seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth and can filter up to 95 percent of particles that are as small as 0.3 microns. They are inspected and certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and are much easier to find than they were in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the CDC says that those labeled “surgical” should still be prioritized for health care workers.
- KN95: These are the Chinese equivalent to the N95. They also can block up to 95 percent of particles and many consider them more comfortable than the N95. They aren’t approved by NIOSH, but rather are regulated by the Chinese government. It’s estimated that more than half of all KN95 masks on the market are fraudulent or counterfeit, which rose when the demand for N95 masks were high early in the pandemic.
- KF94: Less common are the KF94 masks. “KF” stands for “Korean filter” and can filter up to 94 percent of particles in the air. While also not approved by NIOSH, these are regulated by the South Korean government and are commonly worn by regular citizens in South Korea. While there are counterfeits on the market, they can be easier to identify.
Three things to keep in mind when choosing between these masks are fit, comfort and efficiency.
A mask that fits snugly around the face is going to perform better than one that allows air to flow in between the mask and face. Additionally, comfort is important to consider as well, because people are more likely to wear a mask that fits comfortably on their face, and any mask is better than none at all. Lastly, while an authentic N95 is considered the most efficient, both KN95s and KF94s also provide very similar protection – provided they aren’t counterfeit – because they are still made according to standards designated by the Chinese and Korean governments, respectively.
Additionally, the CDC also says that while the N95, KN95 and KF94 are the most commonly known types of respirator masks, there are a number of other authentic variations that also provide a high level of protection, many of which are NIOSH-approved.
How to avoid counterfeit respirator face masks
Unfortunately, there are some opportunistic companies looking to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic to make a profit. One example of this is selling counterfeit masks. A counterfeit mask is one that is marketed as a high-quality filtrating facial covering but is not held to the same inspection standards as the real thing.
While it’s incredibly difficult, even nearly impossible, to tell whether a mask is real or fake just by looking at it, a few ways to ensure you have the real deal include:
- Purchasing from a reputable retailer
- Carefully examining product reviews and seller ratings
- Buying from a trusted reseller, such as the nonprofit Project N95
- Checking the CDC’s list of masks that have gone through filtration testing, as well as their list of known counterfeits
- Not assuming it is real because the mask carries the brand name of an approved manufacturer
Bottom line, any mask is better than no mask.
While the CDC encourages everyone to use a highly protective mask such N95, KN95, KF94 or similar, it still recognizes that wearing any face mask is better than not wearing one at all. Some cloth masks – such as those made with multiple layers of a tightly woven fabric that fits snugly on the face – still provide good protection for people who may not be able to tolerate respirators, such as those with allergies, severe breathing problems and children.
Additionally, fit is vital – for any mask to offer the highest level of protection possible, it should fit closely to the face and cover both the face and nose with a tight seal.
However, should you choose not to use a respirator or have trouble finding one, wearing a surgical mask under a cloth mask (commonly referred to as “double masking”) provides a higher level of protection than either on their own.
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