With the highly transmissible omicron variant burning through the United States, many people are upgrading their face masks. High-filtration N95 and KN95 respirators offer more protection against viral particles than cloth face masks, but they aren't always easy to find. The market is flooded with counterfeits that look like the real thing without meeting government safety standards. To avoid spending money on a fake product, watch out for these warning signs.
One red flag to look for when shopping for masks is the phrase "FDA Approved" on packaging. According to the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration isn't in charge of approving N95 masks. That responsibility falls to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH.
Legitimate N95 respirators will usually have NIOSH's name (spelled correctly) displayed on the package. U.S. government-approved masks also have headbands instead of earloops, and an approval number on the band or facepiece that starts with the letters TC. Be wary of any respirators that claimed to be "approved for children"—NIOSH does approve smaller masks, but not for kids to use specifically.
KN95 masks are the Chinese equivalent to American N95s. While KN95s aren't approved by NIOSH, they're still a safe option if you can determine they're legitimate. A red flag that applies to both types is the presence of decorative elements. If your mask has colorful fabric, sequins, or rhinestones, it likely hasn't been approved for use in a medical setting. A last resort for checking your mask's effectiveness is the candle test. To see how well the mask you have at home can block particles, try blowing out a candle while wearing it. A flame that doesn't move indicates an adequate level of protection.
The CDC's website has a list of NIOSH-approved N95s, as well as a list of known counterfeits. After buying a genuine mask, you may wonder how many times you can get away with using it. Though it's not as sturdy as your cloth mask, you shouldn't necessarily toss it after your first use. Here are some guidelines for rewearing your N95 mask.