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We’re nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite the availability of vaccinations, booster shots and treatments, masks are still a part of our lives. Whether it’s an athletic mask for errand running or a comfortable cloth mask for travel, face masks are here to stay. And thanks to the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, we are again seeing surging sales of N95 face masks.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, legitimate N95 and KN95 masks still remain excellent barriers against this airborne virus, and we’ve already shared the best places to buy N95 masks online with SPY readers.
Unfortunately — but not unexpectedly — increased demand for PPE has also led to a rise in counterfeit N95 masks that aren’t as protective as the real thing. A real N95 mask is designed to filter out 95% of airborne particles 0.3 microns in size, and regular masks can’t do that. Cloth face masks may still be effective at limiting your droplets from spreading to others, but they won’t protect you as well as N95 masks do. (Learn about the difference between KN95 and N95 masks.)
So how can you be sure that you’re buying genuine N95 and KN95 face respirators? We’ve put together a guide to spotting and avoiding fake and counterfeit N95 masks. We consulted experts in the healthcare field as well as manufacturers on what differentiates a real N95 mask from a fake one. If you’re ordering N95 masks online, we recommend avoiding certain red flags below, and purchasing from the trusted brands we’ve featured below.
How to Spot Fake N95 Masks
Fake or counterfeit N95 face masks are products falsely marketed as NIOSH-approved, the certification required for legitimate N95 respirators that can be used as protective personal equipment (or PPE). NIOSH stands for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and it’s the U.S. government agency that certifies N95 masks as safe to use. KN95 masks, and KN94 masks, are certified by foreign governments, but they should offer the exact same level of protection.
According to the CDC, NIOSH-approved respirators have a few things in common. They all have a similar approval label on the respirator (or in the packaging). Usually, they have a label on the actual mask itself.
Kelly Carothers, Director of Government Affairs at Project N95, told SPY that if consumers “want something that is very very protective they should go with a NIOSH-approved product that says NIOSH on there. The CDC has a great link on their website that shows you what to look for.”
“Specifically, it needs to say NIOSH on the mask, and it needs to have something called a TC number. And the manufacturer name has to be on there. If it does not have all of those pieces of information, it could potentially be counterfeit,” said Carothers. (Emphasis added.)
You can also find an updated list of verified fake and counterfeit PPE on the CDC website.
NIOSH-approved respirators will all have one of the following designations: N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99 and P100. You can verify the approval number of any certified N95 masks on the NIOSH-Certified Equipment List (CEL) or the NIOSH Trusted-Source page, both of which are available via the CDC website.
According to many of the experts we spoke to, a respirator may be counterfeit if you spot any of these red flags:
- There are no labels on the product packaging or mask itself
- There’s no approval number on the respirator, headband or box
- There are no NIOSH-related markings on the box
- NIOSH is misspelled
- There are decorative elements on the mask or extra fabric; certified PPE doesn’t have these details
- The products are labeled or marketed as N95 masks for kids, as the NIOSH does not approve respirators for children
- If the respirator has ear loops instead of headbands, which provide a tighter fit, it’s most likely not actually NIOSH-approved
Counterfeit N95 Masks Are Becoming More Convincing
Shahzil Amin, Co-Founder and CEO at WellBefore, a PPE supplier, emphasizes the importance of buying from trusted websites with plenty of reviews, since counterfeit N95 masks have gotten more and more sophisticated throughout the pandemic.
“Unless you live and breathe masks like we do, you won’t be able to tell. These days it’s more about where you order from than trying to figure out how to spot a fake mask. Order from well reviewed and respected websites that have plenty of customer feedback and you’ll be fine,” said Amin.
“Most of the mistakes are made on the packaging and on top of the masks. Look for grammar issues or NIOSH (if using N95s) logos in random places. Look up images of the real product and packaging then compare to what you have in your hands.”
He also added that many “counterfeit KN95 and N95 masks have gotten to the point where they are passing all filtration tests and are fairly good at protecting you.”
Remember: with NIOSH-approved N95 masks, you can depend on at least 95% particle filtration. With those very convincing counterfeit masks? There’s no such guarantee.
Counterfeit N95 Masks, KN95 Masks and Amazon
As demand for PPE rises, so too does the supply of counterfeit N95 masks sold online by large retailers like Amazon. There are now hundreds of listings for N95, KN95 and other protective equipment on Amazon, with many consumers paying top dollar for masks they think are protective. But are these brands actually NIOSH-approved?
Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, was quoted recently in The New York Times expressing concern about the wide availability of counterfeit masks.
“Amazon needs to do more to prevent consumers from receiving counterfeits and fakes, and the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission must act if these failures continue,” Warren said in a statement to the Times.
Carothers also referenced Amazon when talking about problematic counterfeit masks available for purchase online. Consumers should use caution to ensure the mask in their search results will in fact provide the level of protection they need.
“Sometimes when people go in and type in ‘N95 face masks’ the first two or three search results that they see will be sponsored KN95s. A KN95 has no federal oversight. There isn’t the FDA, the CDC, there’s nobody doing quality control over those masks.”
An Amazon spokesperson familiar with their QA process told SPY that the company has developed an internal review process to avoid listing counterfeit KN95 face masks.
“We remain committed to serving our customers through the pandemic, in part by providing the personal protective equipment they need,” they said. “For face masks marketed as N95 and KN95, we have implemented a rigorous seller vetting and product review process to ensure compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and Amazon policies.”
Our source added, “Before listing N95 and KN95 masks in our store, we verify that they are sourced from a trusted manufacturer by inspecting supplier invoices to trace inventory, reviewing packaging and product descriptions, and comparing against the CDC’s counterfeit mask list.”
1. Makrite 9500-N95 Masks
This FDA and NIOSH-approved N95 respirator mask from Makrite is designed to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles and provide protection from aerosols without oil or non-volatile liquid particles in them. Their filtering material is designed for minimal breathing resistance and to give protection to the wearer for eight hours, at least. Each mask has an adjustable nosepiece made of durable aluminum as well as inner urethane foam for added comfort.
2. WellBefore N95 Face Masks
WellBefore is one of our go-to providers of PPE, and they almost always have a wide variety of N95, KN95 and KF94 face masks in stock and ready to ship. Best of all, it’s easy to choose masks with the features you prefer such as behind-the-ear or over-the-head straps. SPY editors have purchased and worn WellBefore face masks throughout the pandemic, and in our experience, their products are comfortable, reliable and arrive on time.
3. Kimberly Clark N95 Pouch-Style Respirators
You’re probably familiar with Kimberly Clark, as it’s one of the largest paper product manufacturers in the country, and now their N95 masks are on sale via Amazon. Their N95 masks are NIOSH-approved for providing 95% filtration protection of particles 0.3 microns and larger. They’re up to 75% more breathable than the NIOSH minimum requirement, and the unique pouch design creates a large breathing chamber for extra comfort.
4. HUHETA KN95 Face Masks
We understand that a lot of people prefer to buy face masks on Amazon, and we get it. Not many retailers can compete with Amazon’s range of options and fast, free shipping. Unfortunately, The New York Times has reported that many so-called KN95 and N95 masks on Amazon are actually counterfeit, so how can you be sure you’re not buying counterfeit face masks? We recommend sticking with one of Amazon’s house brands, such as HUHETA, which provides affordable and protective KN95 masks.
5. FGCCJP KN95 Face Masks
FGCCJP is another Amazon house brand, and so we think it’s a safe and affordable option for any Amazon shoppers worried about counterfeit face masks. This package comes with 30 KN95 face respirators and an extremely affordable price tag.
6. Project N95 BYD Flat Fold N95 Respirators
Project N95 has a ton of NIOSH-approved masks they sell directly on their site, including these flat fold masks from BYD. They’re made for a very close facial fit and have 95% filtration efficiency. They’re currently on sale and can be ready to ship in as few as three days.
7. DEMETECH Flat Fold N95 Respirators
Another NIOSH-approved N95 mask sold via Project N95 is this respirator from DEMETECH. Each mask has a soft polypropylene layer on the inside as well as double filtration for protection against 99% of airborne particles and bacteria. The outer layer is also high-density polypropylene that provides strong resistance against airborne liquids. The double welded straps fit snug around your head for a tight fit, and the folded design makes them easy to throw in your pocket.
N95 Masks Vs. Other Types of Masks
As we mentioned in the intro, an N95 mask is designed to filter out at least 95% of non-oil airborne particles, including airborne viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. The approval process for real N95 masks is also far more rigorous than for KN95 or other types of masks, if they even have an approval process at all.
The N95 designation is regulated by NIOSH, and obtaining that seal of approval takes months and lots of financial investment.
Carothers helped shed light on the ongoing certification that is “N95.”
“It is a six to nine month process at a minimum. It costs somewhere close to six figures, it’s very expensive and [the manufacturers] are subject to ongoing audits. NIOSH will come and audit your quality system every year, and that is the big difference between NIOSH and a KN95 or a mask that doesn’t have oversight.”
What To Do If You’ve Purchased Counterfeit N95 Masks
We also consulted experts on what consumers should do if they’ve purchased N95 masks they now suspect are counterfeit.
Carothers said, “it depends on everyone’s personal level of risk. For someone who has diabetes or is immunocompromised, I would recommend they throw that mask out and buy a NIOSH-approved product. If it was my mother or grandmother, I would make sure they have NIOSH-approved masks.”
She clarified that “most healthy young people are okay with a good quality mask. But otherwise, I wouldn’t take the chance. If you’re going on an airplane, if you’re traveling and you’re going to be in a very crowded indoor setting, I wouldn’t wear those masks – I would make sure you have a NIOSH-approved product.”
Below, we’ve collected examples of real, verified NIOSH-approved N95 masks, as well as genuine KN95 masks. All of these products are for sale online from trustworthy brands. When shopping in-person, be sure to use the advice above so you can always decipher between real N95 face masks and counterfeit ones.