Which kind of face mask is right for you and how to avoid fake ones

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How to spot counterfeit N95 masks.

A few months ago, people probably associated masks with superheroes or healthcare workers (arguably the same thing). However, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed face masks to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Even as government opinions change on whether or not everyday citizens should be wearing masks in public, people are doing so out of caution. From homemade masks to surgical masks to N95 respirators, the many different types of personal protective equipment (PPE) can get confusing. Determining which kind of mask you need can be difficult.

Moreover, the increase in global demand for face masks has sparked a huge market of fake, counterfeit PPE. Knowing how to spot a fake is important as non-approved masks don’t protect their wearer from inhaled particles as well as legitimate ones.

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Related: Buying PPE and respirator masks from recognized vendors

Understanding Masks

There are three main types of masks under discussion right now—cloth masks, surgical masks, and N95s or personal respirators. These are all forms of PPE but differ in their ability to protect their wearer.

At the beginning of April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that everyone wear a cloth face mask in public. This type of mask is the least protective. Many studies show that it doesn’t actually protect the wearer from COVID-19. However, it is better than wearing nothing at all. It may also help stop asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus to other people.

The next best option is a surgical mask. These are professionally made and are cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. On top of this, surgical masks are fluid resistant, which helps protect the wearer from large droplets while also protecting patients from the wearer’s respiratory emissions. Still, air is able to leak around the edges because surgical masks fit loosely and are “one size fits all.”

The ideal form of PPE is an N95 respirator. This mask is tested and approved by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and filters out 95 percent of airborne particles. Prior to use, it needs to be individually fitted to each wearer. Moreover, the fit needs to be tested each time it is put on. Although this is the best type of mask, it is also in short supply and should be reserved for healthcare professionals.

Related: Where to buy masks and other PPE 

How to Spot Fake Face Masks

Currently, there is a huge problem surrounding counterfeit N95 respirators. Many companies advertise masks that are NIOSH-approved when they actually are not. This is problematic since fake masks may not provide adequate respiratory protection.

Identifying counterfeit masks can be tricky. However, some telltale signs make it possible to sort the real from the fake. Every NIOSH-approved mask should feature certain markings. These include things like the NIOSH logo or letters, an approval number, and an N95 designation (this may differ internationally).

On top of this, N95 respirators should always include two headbands rather than loops that go around the ears. While cloth masks may include decorative elements like fabric with patterns or sequins, NIOSH masks should be plain. Finally, NIOSH does not approve respiratory protection for children. As such, if a mask claims that it is certified for children, it is likely a fake.

The following graphic from the CDC is a great visual tool for helping determine if an N95 mask is legitimate or not.

CDC counterfeit mask guide.
Image: CDC

The COVID-19 pandemic has made today’s world a little bit scary. Staying at home and practicing social distancing is still the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus. However, if you need to go out in public, donning the right type of mask is an effective way to slow the virus. For industries that require N95 masks, identifying (and avoiding) counterfeit ones is just as important.

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