The coronavirus pandemic has made people around the world use face masks on a daily basis, with no end in sight. Making sure you're protecting yourself and others with a high-quality mask is critically important, but with a large variety of products in the marketplace, from surgical-grade, to fashion masks, it can be difficult to determine which one is the best kind of mask.
Medical-grade respirators are designed to filter out airborne particles like germs and bacteria and have been increasingly popular, especially when worn indoors. The most popular kinds of respirators are N95 masks and KN95 masks. Both are largely effective in their filtering efficiency, which are capable of filtering at least 95% of 0.3 micron particles or larger.
The N95 mask is the most well-known of the seven types of particulate filtering face piece respirators (face masks) approved by the U.S. government. The 'N' means that it's non-resistant to oil-based particles (something you would need in a more industrial setting, for example), and the '95' means that it filters a minimum of 95% of airborne particles. To verify that your mask is authentic before purchase, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provides a valid list of NIOSH-approved particulate filtering face piece respirators.
N95 masks offer a tight fit and seal, due to the elastic headbands and adjustable nose clip. These masks go through a rigorous testing and certification process by NIOSH. They're capable of filtering out many different kinds of particles by using a multilayer design, and some can protect against smoke inhalation or medical-grade filters for hospital use.
Best N95 masks
NIOSH-Approved N95 Particulate Respirator - Benehal MS8225 - 10 Pack: available at Austin Technology Supply
This Benehal mask provides premium quality with at least 95% filtration efficiency against certain non-oil based particles. This mask is on the CDC Trusted-Source list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators from the manufacturer Suzhou Sanical Protective Product Manufacturing, Co., Ltd.
The Chinese government requires manufacturers to do mask fit tests on actual human subjects to certify their masks as KN95. Masks have to achieve 8% leakage or less. The U.S. government doesn't require manufacturers to run fit tests.
Depending on where you live, the supply of N95 masks and KN95 masks is incredibly different. Increasingly, the availability of KN95 masks has been easier for the general public to purchase because healthcare professionals are required to only use NIOSH-approved N95 masks. As long as the KN95 masks are certified and authentic products and not counterfeits, this isn't a problem.
In September 2020, a report from the Emergency Care Research Institute found that up to 70% of KN95 masks imported from China don't meet the same filtration efficacy as N95 masks. The CDC now has a valid list of non-NIOSH-approved KN95 masks that have gone through filtration testing. It can be difficult to detect a fake KN95 mask, but buying from a reputable manufacturer with certified products can improve your chances of purchasing an authentic product.
Best KN95 masks
FDA EUA KN95 Particulate Respirator - Benehal 9015 - 20 Pack/box: available at Austin Technology Supply
These Benehal masks are both Chinese, and European certified, and have been lab tested to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles.
The masks are $29.99 for a box of twenty, come from the highly reputable manufacturer in China; Suzhou Sanical Protective Product Manufacturing, Co., Ltd., that has made masks since 2011 and are approved by the FDA for emergency use.
N95 vs. KN95 masks: Which one should I buy?
The reality, according to U.S. government testing is that N95 masks have slightly stronger breathability standards and have a tighter fit than KN95s, which provides more protection from airborne particles. There's also less of a counterfeit problem with N95s. Regardless of which mask you purchase, the most important features to look out for is the certified testing filter efficiency, quality of multilayer design and proper fit.