I’ve really come around on cloth face masks over the last few months.
Are they comfortable, per se? Not really! Do I love wearing one while I exercise? Extremely no! But they do help keep you from spreading COVID-19 germs around while letting you disguise your unwashed face or cosplay Orville Peck, should you want to do that. And there’s still a national shortage of PPE—including the N95 masks recommended by the government—which means those of us who just want to go to the grocery store and stock up on seltzer are supposed to be saving them for folks who need them most, like healthcare workers. Cloth coverings have been the only option.
Or so I thought. Lately, though, I’ve seen more and more online and IRL marketplaces selling masks called KN95s. They’re not sequined or screenprinted, and they look like they’re medical-grade. They have that little metal bridge over the nose, and the fabric is a lot like those on N95s. But are they safe? Are they effective? (Does the K stand for “knockoff”?) VICE spoke with a few epidemiology experts to find out.
What exactly are KN95 masks?
First things first: KN95 masks are a real thing (though yes, some people out there are counterfeiting them—more on that in a moment). According to Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, KN95s are basically just the Chinese version of N95s, with a lot of similarities between the two.
N95s are the kind of masks that have been approved by American agencies—the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the FDA—but KN95s historically haven’t been.
“KN95s are regulated by Chinese authorization and standards, but were granted emergency use by the FDA earlier this year as N95 supplies ran low,” Popescu said.
On April 3, “in response to continued respirator shortages,” the FDA website states, it issued a new Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for non–NIOSH-approved N95 respirators made in China—including KN95s—so long as “certain criteria are met, including evidence demonstrating that the respirator meets certain standards.”
“Theoretically, a good KN95 should provide comparable filtration to an N95,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and steering committee member of the Federation of American Scientists COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force, told VICE. The resistance volume before the mask fails is a little bit lower with a KN95—meaning, essentially, that the N95 can handle deeper breathing—but otherwise, he said, they’re fairly similar.
A properly-worn cloth or paper mask is pretty effective in preventing you from spreading the virus, but they’re not a guarantee you won’t contract it—one study found they have a filtration rate that can range from between 5 and 80 percent (for a single layer of fabric). Respirators, such as N95s and KN95s, on the other hand, take it one step further, protecting you from inhaling germs. “N95, KN95—they’re for protecting you from others,”Feigl-Ding said.
So are KN95s available in the U.S. real and legitimate?
Popescu reckons that KN95s started gaining popularity in the U.S. when people saw healthcare workers using N95s and learned that there are higher-rated masks out there than the ones for sale on Etsy. “But I think it’s important to stress that [N95s] are for medical care and aerosol-generating procedures, which is much higher risk than community exposures,” she said. In other words, your run to Trader Joe’s doesn’t put you in the type of danger that healthcare first responders are in. “That … definitely has pushed a counterfeit market for them, which is deeply worrisome.”
“That’s the other thing, is there’s outright fraud,” Feigl-Ding added. “We’re in a global pandemic, and [masks are] the number one commodity right now.”
According to Feigl-Ding, there are KN95s on the market that only provide 25 percent filtration, or 50 percent filtration. The CDC and the FDA have banned dozens of manufacturers who made faulty masks that weren’t up to code. Last month, feds charged a Chinese manufacturer with selling more than 140,000 fake KN95s that NIOSH labs found filtered only about 22 percent of particles. One ProPublica reporter recently uncovered the story of a warehouse in Texas where contract workers were ripping open and repackaging KN95s to make it look like they were OK for medical use.
Is there any way to tell which ‘KN95s’ are fake?
When it comes to spotting fake KN95s, Popescu said she refers to a NIOSH list of counterfeiting indicators, which the organization is updating as they become aware of counterfeit brands. No markings on the filtering facepiece respirator? No approval number on the respirator or headband? Is “NIOSH” spelled incorrectly? That’s a fake! NIOSH has also compiled some advice for buying from trusted vendors, including tips like, “if a listing claims to be ‘legitimate’ and ‘genuine,’ it likely is not.”
Feigl-Ding said there are a few tests to spot less-than-effective KN95 masks after purchase that seem to be fairly useful. You can give it a trial by fire: With your mask on, ignite a lighter six inches from your face, and blow. If you can put the flame out, your KN95 is no good. Or, empty out a packet of Sweet and Low or other artificial sweetener, put your mask on, and give it a whiff. “Your ability to smell through the mask should be greatly reduced,” Feigl-Ding said.
If I see a KN95, should I buy it?
Even “good” KN95 masks aren’t 100 percent COVID-proof. “KN95s are of higher quality than a cloth mask, but there are some important things to note,” Popescu said. For one, she said the N95 respirators require fit testing (an OSHA-approved process that ensures air can’t leak into the mask) to be sure they’re effective. This isn’t as important when you’re not performing aerosol-generating procedures—as in, you’re out in your community, or protesting, or going to get groceries—but it does mean you’re not getting quite the same level of protection with a KN95 as you would with an N95. And Popescu said people with certain conditions, like asthma, actually shouldn’t use them, because the tight fit and filtration can make it too hard to breathe.
Also, “the good KN95s should not have ear loops,” Feigl-Ding said, because that means the mask can’t be custom fitted to your face. But many of the KN95s on the market right now do. The best KN95s, according to Feigl-Ding, have a strap that you can tie and tighten, because the thing that’s most important with these kinds of masks is creating a good seal around your face. (Hence, the CDC beard graphic that went viral in the earlier days of the pandemic.)
All this means the answer is… maybe! “You want to make sure they’re legit and real,” Feigl-Ding said. He recommended buying one, then testing it, before going back for more. And you probably shouldn’t shell out for a pack of 100 without trying one out first. “The problem is when you order them, often they’re from some mysterious factory in China. You don’t know if they’re real, you can’t pre-test it.”
“I do think most of the KN95s do offer more filtration than a cloth mask,” Feigl-Ding continued. You might not need one, but he said it might not be a bad idea in situations where you know other people aren’t going to be behaving properly or wearing their own cloth masks.
“In a nutshell, if that’s all you had access to, sure—that’s better than a cloth mask, or nothing,” Popescu said. But, she added, “I personally wouldn’t wear one unless it was my only option—I prefer to use a surgical mask or cloth mask in public.”
Follow Emily Cassel on Twitter.