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Earlier this week, it was reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was considering a recommendation for Americans to wear higher quality masks, specifically KN95s and N95s, amid the omicron surge.

But with all the choices on where to buy them and which type, it can get confusing to determine which masks are the real deal, WJW reports.

The CDC reports that 60% of the KN95 masks (a version of N95 masks made in China) in the U.S. are fake, for example.

The most common pitfall scenarios, according to the CDC, occur because:

  • Documents are altered so mask models appear to comply with a particular standard, but they do not.
  • Certification marks are counterfeit.
  • Manufacturers’ names, logos, and model numbers are counterfeit.

Below is some information to help you choose your masks wisely.

What are N95 and KN95 masks?

As outlined by the Cleveland Clinic, cloth masks don’t do much to protect users from inhaling particles that carry the virus.

According to the CDC, tight-fitting masks like N95 and KN95 respirators are designed to protect the people wearing them from particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19. At the same time, they protect others from the wearer’s respiratory droplets and particles.

Some respirators are tested to meet international health standards and are labeled to tell users what standard they meet. The most widely available respirators that meet international standards are KN95s, according to the CDC.

But others go a step further and also meet a specific U.S. standard that includes a quality requirement through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Those include the N95 respirators.

The CDC recommends that specially labeled “surgical” N95s be prioritized for healthcare workers.

“It’s really best to find a mask that has been approved by a regulating body,” said the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Steven Gordon. “But the truth is that at the end of the day, any mask that fits closely to the face is better than a mask that doesn’t.” 

How can you tell if your mask is a counterfeit?

The CDC warns that some counterfeit respirators are products that are falsely marketed and sold as being NIOSH-approved. They may not be capable of providing appropriate respiratory protection, according to the CDC.

NIOSH-approved respirators, like N95 masks, will have an approval label on or within the packaging of the respirator. An abbreviated approval is also on the respirator.

KN95 masks are not approved by NIOSH, so legitimate KN95 masks should not include a NIOSH-approved stamp or claim.

Other signs that a respirator may be counterfeit, according to the CDC, include the following:

  • No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator
  • No approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband
  • No NIOSH markings on N95 masks
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly on N95 masks
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins)
  • Claims of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children)
  • Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands

Red flags when shopping for a mask

When shopping for respirators from third-party marketplaces or unfamiliar websites, the CDC also warns the public to take the following into account:

  • If a listing claims to be “legitimate” and “genuine,” it likely is not.
  • Look at the transaction history and reviews if possible.
  • Are there changes to the items sold over time (high or low periods of transaction)? Legitimate businesses and suppliers typically sell the same items over time.
  • Are there price changes or swings? (Is it too good to be true?)
  • Look at the quantity a buyer has in stock. During a time of shortage, advertising “unlimited stock” could indicate the respirator is not NIOSH-approved.
  • Does the seller break marketplace policy and hide their contact information within images?
  • Is the primary contact email address connected to the website or is it a free email account? Using a free email service may suggest the seller is not part of the company.
  • Look for bad grammar, typos and other errors.
  • Watch for cookie-cutter websites in which the sellers interchange several websites, resulting in mistakes.

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