Acquiring N95 Masks has become a major issue during the COVID-19 crisis — for healthcare workers and regular citizens alike. The global shortage of N95 masks has only exacerbated the spread of Coronavirus, making it more difficult for healthcare workers to do their jobs safely and for communities across the United States to contain the spread. Fortunately, many Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) manufacturers have ramped up production of N95 masks in response to the crisis. As a result, N95 masks are back on the market.
So, where can you buy N95 masks? Where are some common places that you CANNOT buy N95 masks? Which providers are the most reliable? Finally, how can you differentiate real N95 masks from knockoffs and imitations? We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s look at the N95 mask and what makes it so important in the fight against COVID-19.
What Are N95 Masks and Why Are They So Important?
An N95 mask is a type of medical-grade respirator designed specifically for medical personnel or other kinds of workers in high-risk situations. For example, a construction worker may need to wear an N95 mask to protect themselves from airborne particles and toxic dust. However, they are most commonly used in medical environments, as they combine high-level particle and fluid splatter protection.
According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), an N95 mask or respirator is defined as follows:
“An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. Note that the edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth. Surgical N95 Respirators are commonly used in healthcare settings and are a subset of N95 Filtering Facepiece Respirators (FFRs), often referred to as N95s.”
This definition provides an overview of N95 masks and how they are distinctive from lesser medical-grade masks like surgical masks. Unlike a surgical mask, which does not prevent air particles from entering through the bottom, sides, or top of the mask, N95 masks provide (near) complete protection. N95 masks are designed to seal against the face. Most N95 masks include a nose clip that prevents particles from coming in through the gap between the nose and cheeks. Thus, N95 masks are some of the most effective forms of PPE for protection against Coronavirus.
That said, the N95 mask shares some characteristics with surgical masks. For example, all medical-grade Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is tested to determine its safety in the following areas:
- Fluid resistance
- Filtration efficiency (particulate and bacterial)
Additionally, N95 masks are single-use only. This means that they are not designed to be used more than once. If someone wearing an N95 mask finds that it has been soiled or somehow damaged, they should replace it and dispose of the contaminated mask immediately.
N95 Mask Safety Guidelines
While N95 masks are generally safe to use for medical professionals, the FDA does provide certain precautions related to the use of N95 masks:
- “People with chronic respiratory, cardiac, or other medical conditions that make breathing difficult should check with their health care provider before using an N95 respirator because the N95 respirator can make it more difficult for the wearer to breathe;
- Some models have exhalation valves that can make breathing out easier and help reduce heat build-up. Note that N95 respirators with exhalation valves should not be used when sterile conditions are needed;
- All FDA-cleared N95 respirators are labeled as "single-use," disposable devices. If your respirator is damaged or soiled, or if breathing becomes difficult, you should remove the respirator, discard it properly, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your N95 respirator, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used respirator;
- N95 respirators are not designed for children or people with facial hair. Because a proper fit cannot be achieved on children and people with facial hair, the N95 respirator may not provide full protection.”
Where Can You Buy N95 Masks?
Though the world (including the United States) is experiencing a shortage of N95 masks, they are available for non-medical personnel to purchase. As of late 2020, N95 masks are available to purchase via online retailers like Amazon and eBay. They are also available at physical retailers like Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowes. As a result, no matter where you are located in the United States (or even abroad), there’s likely a way for you to buy N95 masks.
However, it’s important to note the quality of masks that you find at major retailers can vary greatly. Due to the shortage of N95 masks, many retailers have been forced to acquire masks from disreputable or illegitimate sources. For example, a large influx of KN95 masks has entered the U.S. market from China. In theory, KN95 masks are comparable to N95 masks. The only technical difference is that they go through a different regulatory process.
N95 masks are regulated by U.S. agencies like the FDA and CDC, while KN95 masks are regulated by government agencies in China. While the processes are very similar, the outcomes can be drastically different. Most recently, a study revealed that between 60-70% of Chinese-made KN95 masks do not filter 95% of particles. By design, N95 and KN95 masks are supposed to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. As a result, KN95 masks are not as safe as their American counterparts.
Additionally, buying from a non-medical retailer comes with other inherent risks. Not only is it more difficult to confirm the quality of the mask, but it also takes more time. If you’re buying online, most major retailers will take one or two weeks to send out the shipment. Alternatively, if you’re trying to buy N95 masks in person, you’ll likely find that the shelves are empty and many stores have N95 masks on backorder.
How Can I Tell If I’m Buying a Real N95 Mask?
This is where things can get a little bit tricky. However, don’t worry, because there are some pretty easy ways to tell the difference between an N95 mask and a knockoff. First and foremost, N95 masks are labeled as such. You will see the N95 marker somewhere on the interior or exterior of the mask. If you see “KN95” on the mask or packaging, be wary. Though KN95 masks are considered “comparable,” they do not perform as well as N95 masks, especially when it comes to particle absorption.
If you’re buying an N95 mask in person, you can also tell by the design of the mask. All N95 masks have a similar design and are produced using the same materials. N95 masks are relatively unique in both their physical characteristics and functionality. A traditional surgical mask is somewhat loose and does not fit tightly against the skin.
Alternatively, the N95 mask has a hard, shell-like exterior made of tightly-woven polypropylene fiber. Additionally, most N95 masks include extra features like a nose clip and a valve. The nose clip ensures that the area around the bridge of the nose remains tight against the skin, while a valve is an optional feature that allows for greater breathability. Typically, N95 masks are bowl-shaped, as opposed to rectangular surgical masks or cone-shaped KN95 masks.
You can also differentiate N95 masks based on the straps. Many cloth and surgical masks have straps that go behind each ear. However, N95 mask straps are designed to fit around the back of the head and neck. KN95 masks also have straps that fit around the ears. Thus, one of the easiest ways to know if you’re buying something legitimate is to examine the design of the straps.
Finally, you should always check where your masks are coming from (if possible). For example, here is a list of reputable N95 mask producers based in the United States:
- 3M (St. Paul, Minnesota)
- Kimberley-Clarke Corporation (Irving, Texas)
- Prestige Ameritech (North Richland Hills, Texas)
- Moldex-Metric (Culver City, California)
- Honeywell (Santa Ana, California)
- BD (Franklin Lakes, New Jersey)
If the mask you want to purchase was not produced by one of these companies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a scam. However, if you don’t recognize the name of the manufacturer, make sure to do some research into the company before you make your purchase.
How Many N95 Masks Can I Buy?
This is another tricky question. In theory, you can buy as many N95 masks from multiple retailers as you want, as long as they have them in stock. However, a better question is: how many N95 masks should you buy? As previously mentioned, there is a worldwide shortage of N95 masks. As a result, the CDC and WHO urge citizens to leave N95 masks for the frontline healthcare workers who deal with COVID-19 patients every day.
That said, it’s understandable that you want to keep yourself and your family safe. So, if you need to buy N95 masks, you should certainly buy more than one. Every N95 mask is single-use only, so once you use it, you’re supposed to throw it away. However, even many healthcare workers are forced to reuse N95 masks due to the shortage. So, if you just want to use an N95 mask while you shop at the grocery store, you may be able to decontaminate the mask and reuse it another time.
Now, let’s return to the question at hand. Most retailers put a limit on the number of masks you can buy; this includes surgical masks, KN95 masks, and N95 masks. So, how many N95 masks you can purchase will largely depend on where you go to buy them. Additionally, a few major retailers promised from the outset of the pandemic to reserve all N95 masks for medical facilities and workers. This means that regular citizens or non-medical workers cannot buy N95 masks from a few larger retailers. Additionally, it’s very difficult to buy masks in bulk from any one retailer.
Where Are N95 Masks NOT Available?
Generally, it’s difficult to buy N95 masks outside of large retailers. For example, a local company that deals in medical supplies may or may not have any N95 masks in stock. Additionally, most pharmacies only sell cloth and surgical masks in bulk.
However, it never hurts to ask. Some pharmacies do stock N95 masks, though there will almost certainly be a limit on how many you can buy. Additionally, you can now find cloth masks in nearly every clothing retailer, but these are far less effective than either surgical or N95 masks.
Where Is the Best Place to Buy N95 Masks?
As you can see, there are a lot of risks involved when trying to buy N95 masks from major retailers. First, you can’t always be 100% sure that you’re getting legitimate N95 masks. Second, you’ll likely have to wait several weeks to get your purchase — even if you go to a store in person. Third, many retailers put a limit on the number of masks that non-medical personnel can buy.
So, what’s the best solution? Based on the available information, one of the best sources for N95 masks is Clinical Supplies USA. Not only does this company only deal in certified safety masks, but it also ships masks out in bulk at reasonable prices. The company was recently featured in major news outlets as one of the best places for regular consumers to buy safety masks. In short, if you’re in need of N95 safety masks and you don’t want to deal with the hassles and pitfalls of traditional retailers, you’d be better served to check out Clinical Supplies USA.
As an added bonus, Clinical Supplies USA doesn’t just sell N95 masks. You can also buy surgical masks, ventilators, respirators, and other medical-grade equipment. This makes it a one-stop-shop for anyone who wants to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sadly, buying masks can be complicated in these times. You want to buy the best, but you also have to consider that medical workers desperately need high-quality PPE, including N95 masks. Fortunately, companies like Clinical Supplies USA make it easier to acquire legitimate N95 masks without putting a major strain on PPE production and distribution. In any case, it is advisable to only purchase N95 masks and other medical-grade equipment as needed. This way, you ensure that you and your loved ones are safe, while also allowing for medical workers to do their jobs with the equipment they need.