Not All Masks Are Created Equal — What To Look For When Shopping Online

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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When news of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the mainstream, you couldn’t find masks anywhere. Health officials were telling folks not to wear N95s — they weren’t sure yet how effective they’d be, given we knew so little about the COVID-19 virus, and more importantly, the limited supply we did have needed to be saved for healthcare workers. The rest of us needed to just stay home, avoid people, and wear something over our faces if we needed to go out.

Early on, really anything that would cover your nose and mouth was deemed adequate. A bandana would suffice. The point was to keep from spraying your breath all over the other people around you. Eventually, various paper companies, clothing makers, and PPE producers began manufacturing masks.

Things Are Very Different Now

The highly transmissible and more dangerous Delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading through the population. Hospitals are filling up in a way that makes it scary for anyone to get sick with any kind of illness, not just COVID-19. We can no longer assume emergency care will be available. School is starting across the country, often without any virtual option. Irate parents protest mask mandates, and conspiracy theorists continue to refuse the vaccine. Despite all this, impossibly, somehow even fewer people are masking up than before.

That means the masks each of us wear as individuals have to be next-level effective. We can’t rely on others to also wear masks and keep their gross germs on their own damn face, so our masks have to be that much more reliable. We’re not just trying to keep our own germs in. We’re trying to keep everyone else’s out. The masks your Aunt Judy so lovingly sewed you from salvaged scraps of fabric from her sewing room early on in the pandemic aren’t going to cut it anymore. (What a sweetheart Aunt Judy is, though, for real.)

So how do you find a reliable mask that can give you some peace of mind for when you have no choice but to be around other people who may or may not be masked and/or vaccinated? Better yet, how can you find one from your couch?

What To Look For When Shopping For A Reliable Mask Online

When it comes to masks, there are literally thousands of options to choose from. From washable to washable + insert pocket to disposable to 5-layer disposable, to N95s and KN95s and N94s … after a while you start to feel like you’re being attacked by random letters and numbers. Just tell me what works.

According to the CDC, there are three key features you want to look for when hunting for a reliable mask:

  • Multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric
  • A bendable nose wire
  • The mask should block light when held up to bright light source

A couple of things to avoid when it comes to masks are exhalation valves or vents, single layer masks, or masks made of thin fabric that don’t block light.

With disposable masks, N95s are the gold standard as they’re NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)-approved, but those are hard to find. Plus, our healthcare workers need them.

The next best are the KN95 — the primarily Chinese-made mask that offers comparable protection to that of the N95, or the KF94 — the South Korean-made version of the N95. You can also look for mask packaging labeled with “MEETS ASTM F3502,” “MEETS WORKPLACE PERFORMANCE,” “MEETS WORKPLACE PERFORMANCE PLUS,” or “KN95.”


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The National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) has reviewed hundreds of these types of masks — you can go right to the CDC website and review filtration efficiency by maker. Note, none of these masks are NIOSH-approved like N95s, however the test process for all of these masks was a modified version of the same one NIOSH uses.

But Watch Out For Counterfeit

The huge problem at the moment, according to the CDC, is that an estimated 60% of KN95s in the U.S. are counterfeit. Unfortunately, that means they may not offer the same protection as a true KN95. The only way to know if you’re getting a legitimate mask from the maker you intend to buy from is to do your research on the supply chain — i.e., know where it came from.

Purchasing masks from Amazon or any other third-party seller requires skepticism and scrutiny. You can easily figure out the seller of the masks you purchase, as well as the manufacturer and country of origin, by clicking “see more product details” on the Amazon listing. Reading the reviews can help, too, as well as checking the seller rating. Some maskmakers, like 3M and Aegle, offer tools to verify if the masks you’ve purchased are authentic. The CDC offers more tips for spotting counterfeit masks here.

What About Reusable Masks?

If you’d rather have something you can wash and re-wear, you’ll have to do a little extra research. No reusable masks have been tested by the NPPTL, so you can’t be absolutely sure of exactly how much filtration you’re getting unless you have a test lab at home. That said, if you do want to go for a reusable mask, you should look for a few things:

  • A pocket for filters (Yes, you need the filter. The fabric alone will not offer the same protection.)
  • A bendable nose wire
  • A snug fit around your face; no sagging

A couple of reusable mask brands that come recommended are VogMask, Graf Lanz, and Halo Life. All of these brands have pockets for filters.

Also remember, regardless of what type of mask you’re using, if you need to make an adjustment, you should handle it by the ear loops, not the fabric front. And, though the CDC notes that double masking with a disposable mask plus a fabric mask offers extra protection, KN95 masks should not be worn with any other mask. If you’re going with a KN95, do your best to ensure it’s authentic and then stick to one at a time.

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