The Best KN95 and N95 Face Masks to Buy Right Now, Per CDC and FDA Guidelines
We updated this article in May 2022 to add more information about each featured product, based on extensive research, including research on counterfeit masks, done by our team. We also consulted medical professionals to speak to the efficacy of each type of mask.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance in January 2022 on masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant, and made a big move: The agency opened up the use of N95 masks to everyone. N95 masks were previously restricted to healthcare workers because of supply chain issues, making this a really big deal.
At the same time, the CDC went more in-depth about KN95 masks, noting that they “offer even more protection” than surgical and cloth masks. So, naturally, there’s been a run on KN95 and N95 masks.
KN95 masks aren’t a new thing for the public: People have been using these for months in the U.S. But if you haven’t used either a KN95 or N95 mask in the past, you probably have questions about what, exactly, these are.
N95 masks, which are considered the gold standard of face masks, are particulate respirators that filter out at least 95% of aerosols, according to the CDC. (Worth noting: There’s a subtype of N95 masks labeled “surgical” N95 respirators. These provide extra protection against hazards that may be present during medical procedures like blood splatter, and should still be reserved for healthcare workers, the CDC says.)
KN95 masks are the Chinese version of N95 masks, explains Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. These are certified by the Chinese government and also filter out up to 95% of aerosols.
The main difference between these two masks is that N95s have to meet stricter requirements, including the ability to filter out bacteria and viruses, and be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Still, "N95 and KN95 respirators are quite comparable," says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to snatch up a KN95 mask and know that it performs the way it says it does. But the CDC warns that up to 60% of KN95 masks on the market are counterfeit and do not work as well as they claim. "There are definitely counterfeits out there," Dr. Schaffner says.
That’s where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) comes in. Earlier in the pandemic, the FDA issued emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for KN95 masks to allow healthcare workers who couldn’t obtain N95s to use them and trust that they were legit. The FDA has since revoked those EUAs now that N95s are more widely available (to healthcare workers, at least). Prior to that, some companies and their masks were taken off the list for producing products that weren’t up to snuff, making the whole process pretty confusing. The list isn’t updated anymore, and the Federal Travel Mask Mandate has been lifted, but you can generally use it as a buying guide to make sure that the KN95 masks you’re buying are good.
N95 masks, on the other hand, have to be NIOSH-approved, and the government agency has a list online that you can use to look up a mask you’re considering. Keep in mind, too, that if you buy an N95 mask from a reputable retailer, like Target, CVS, Home Depot, or Lowe’s, you can usually trust that it’s legitimate, Dr. Russo says.
Whether you choose an N95 or KN95 respirator, the CDC recommends that your mask forms a tight seal to your face. You’ll also want to take a pass on masks that have exhalation valves, vents, or other openings, as well as those that you feel like you can’t breathe well when you’re wearing them.
It’s all a lot to take in and, unfortunately, the process of buying KN95 and N95 masks in the U.S. is a little complicated. Still, there are good quality masks available. To make the whole process a little easier on you, here’s a breakdown of quality KN95 and N95 masks that are actually available for sale right now. Stock up while you can.
It can be hard to find quality KN95 and N95 face masks. These meet CDC and FDA standards, and they’re actually in stock.