What to look for when purchasing an N95 mask

The N95 has become a popular item in every household over the last months. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 masks were exclusive to workers in the construction, mining, or painting industries, or being used as medical, surgical or dental personal protection equipment (PPE). Maybe the occasional family with kids who suffer from dust or pollen allergies.

But, with the increase in the demand of this PPE, a lot of manufacturers have come forward with their versions of the N95 mask. The problem comes when we find so many face masks for sale on the market claiming to be N95 masks or being NIOSH approved, when in reality they're not. We should all learn how to spot a counterfeit N95 mask during this time, to ensure our full safety.

What is an N95 mask?

The term N95 mask is not given to any face mask. For it to be an N95 respirator it must meet certain criteria that is established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This institute is a federal agency of the United States, and it’s responsible for the recommendations in preventing work-related illnesses and injuries. As a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIOSH is the maximum authority when it comes to regulating PPE.

NIOSH has an air filtration rating which classifies respirators based mainly on their filtration efficacy. N95 respirators are one of the types of respirators according to this classification. This rating takes into account two characteristics for naming the mask:

  • The first part of the name can be one of three letter, N, R, or P. This indicates the resistance to oil-based particulates. ‘N’ means not resistant to oil, therefore masks with this letter on their name should be used for protection against particulates that aren’t oil-based.
  • The second part of the name refers to the minimum filtration efficacy. For example, ’95’ means that the mask can filter, at least, 95% of airborne particulates. This refers to a particle size of 0.3 micrometers.

According to this classification we have different types of respirators, like R95 or P99. The most available one in the US is the N95 mask, and its name indicates that it’s not resistant to oil and that it filters at least 95% of airborne particles.

This classification makes the N95 mask optimal for protection against particles like those resulting from wildfires, pollution, volcanic eruptions, or viruses.

What you should look for in a N95 mask

There are many ways you can know if your N95 mask is a high-quality one, approved by NIOSH. As we mentioned earlier, with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic a lot of low-quality and not certified manufacturers started coming out with N95 masks for sale without the proper regulation and without meeting basic standards for filtration. People who buy and use these N95 masks are potentially spreading the virus among their communities or getting infected. This is especially concerning for people with high risk comorbidities or people who are immunocompromised.

Learning what a NIOSH-certified N95 mask should look like, the labels it must have, and the instructions it provides, can be of great help for people who aren't familiar with medical PPE. Furthermore, it could potentially save lives.

NIOSH approval label and other specifications

First thing you have to look for is the NIOSH approval label. It could be on or within the packaging of the N95 mask. This could be either inside the box or within the instructions, and an abbreviated approval should always be on the N95 mask itself. Additionally, you can check the approval number on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL) or the NIOSH Trusted-Source page.

Besides the approval number, N95 that are certified must state clearly that they have a particulate filtration efficacy of, at least, 95%. Also, legitimate N95 masks are not approved for use by children, and if your N95 mask says otherwise, you can be sure it’s not NIOSH approved.

Appearance, materials, and other characteristics

A NIOSH-approved N95 mask has headbands instead of earloops, like the ones surgical masks have. These headbands ensure a tight and good fit to the face. If you see an N95 for sale in a shop with earloops, it will probably fit all the other criteria we mention as a counterfeit N95 mask.

An easy way to catch a fake N95 mask is if the acronym NIOSH is misspelled, and the most common misspelling is NOISH. A legitimate N95 mask will come with instructions on how to wear and discard it. Remember that this is a disposable face mask, and they should be discarded correctly. And lastly, NIOSH certified N95 masks don’t have decorations like sequins or other types of fabrics, and will never be made of materials that can cause allergic reactions.

For the complete list on how to determine if a N95 mask is counterfeit and not NIOSH approved, you can read the Counterfeit Respirators / Misrepresentation of NIOSH-Approval published by the CDC.

Even though it may seem that finding a legitimate N95 mask may be hard with all these specifications and characteristics, it all comes down to education. Once you become familiar with the PPE currently used to face the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be easy to point out when something doesn’t look right.

As we always say, finding an N95 mask online is easy, many shops have legitimate manufacturers with N95 masks for sale who meet all criteria we mentioned. You can find the best prices and manufacturers, like 3M very easily, and still stay safe inside your home. With the pandemic in full force, you can be sure you’ll always find them in stock.


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