Healthy Body

Here’s What Epidemiologists Want You To Know About the Best N95 Masks To Buy

Photo: Getty Images/MesquitaFMS
Many of us have been wearing masks for nearly two years now. And still, so many questions remain. With the presence of the COVID-19 omicron variant once again throwing many parts of our lives into question, you may be wondering what mask will give you the best chance of protecting yourself and others from the virus. We know we were—so we asked an epidemiologist to name the best N95 masks to buy.

Still not sure what an N95 is? Here's the deal: When worn properly, N95 respirators provide the most protection against COVID-19, says epidemiologist Karen Edwards, MS, PhD, of the University of California Irvine Program in Public Health. "These masks meet specific requirements in terms of the size of the particles they are designed to filter out and are also designed to provide a very close facial fit so that they form a seal around your nose and mouth," she explains. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), N95 respirators that have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) filter up to 95 percent—go figure!—of particles in the air that could contain COVID-19.

That being said, Dr. Edwards says it's important to make sure your N95 fits properly to receive the maximum amount of protection. "The key is to be sure that it fits snugly. Because of the snug fit, they are uncomfortable to wear for long periods, but having an N95 that is loose will not provide the same level of protection as a properly fitting N95," says Dr. Edwards. "Also, for people who have chronic respiratory, cardiac or other medical conditions that make breathing difficult, they should check with their healthcare provider about what mask would be best for them." And don't forget to wear your mask over your nose at all times.

If you're seeing countless variations of masks while you're out and about, Dr. Edwards is here to offer a bit of clarification. "The N95 masks meet U.S standards and would be best. KN95 meet Chinese standards and are their equivalent of the N95, while the KF94 masks are made out of similar material as the N95 and are made in South Korea. All are designed to fit snugly. And if they fit properly, they will provide good protection," she says. So if you can only get your hands on a KN95 or a KF94, that's great, too.

Just make sure you're purchasing all of these masks from a reputable source: The CDC estimates that up to 60 percent of N95s are counterfeits, and you should also verify the efficacy of your KN95s and KF94s. "If you have doubts, check out CDC’s webpage that helps to identify those that manufacturers and models that are approved and legitimate," says Dr. Edwards. Before you click "buy" on any mask, go ahead and make sure the manufacturer made this CDC-approved list and has the NIOSH seal of approval. We got this.

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