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These Are the Best Kind of Masks To Protect You From the Omicron Variant

As soon as medical experts recommended that we ditch cloth masks in favor of N95 and KN95s, many of us scoured the internet to find high-quality masks at a reasonable price. The Omicron variant spreads so easily that we all need stronger protection. However, counterfeits pepper the search results, leading to confusion about which masks are certified and which are not. And what is a “NIOSH” mask, anyway?

If you’re trying to figure out which masks to buy, here is the first thing you need to know: N95 respirators are the gold standard in the U.S. However, KN95s and KF94s may also be effective depending on the brand. It’s a good idea to shop for alternatives to N95s intended for healthcare settings, because medical professionals need those the most.  

What does “NIOSH certified” mean?  

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulates respirators. The organization certifies respirators for use in medical and non-medical settings, so that medical professionals (and regular consumers) know that the N95 masks they buy are the real deal. If a respirator is NIOSH certified, it means that it has gone through vigorous testing.  

For clarity, there is a difference between respirators, surgical masks, and cloth masks. NIOSH evaluates and tests respirators only. The criteria for an NIOSH certified respirator include: 

  • Protects against the exposure of airborne particles, such as viruses and bacteria.  
  • Creates a tight seal around the mouth and nose. 
  • It is proven in testing to filter at least 95 percent of small particles from the air (hence the name N95).  
  • Designed for single use.  

In contrast, surgical masks (the disposable light-blue masks) and cloth masks are not evaluated, tested, or certified by NIOSH. They are simply designed to block splashes, droplets, and spit. They don’t form a tight seal around the face, and they don’t effectively filter small particles from the air.  

NIOSH Certified Masks to Buy 

Looking for a gold standard, NIOSH certified N95? While many counterfeits exist, a good number of companies create soft N95 respirators designed for non-medical use. Here are the ones we recommend: 

If you are looking to purchase a different brand, you can check it against the CDC’s list of NIOSH certified respirators. To do so, scroll down to the index and click on the letter that corresponds to the first letter in the manufacturer’s name.  

Non-NIOSH Masks That Are Still Effective 

While KN95 masks aren’t NIOSH certified, many of those respirators manufactured outside of the U.S. can still effectively filter out particles. Back in 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created a list of masks authorized for surgical use when NIOSH certified N95 respirators were in short supply.  

As a result, you can find non-NIOSH respirators and masks that were once approved by the FDA in a time of crisis, and still offer a good level of protection. A few standouts include: 

There’s also another type of mask to consider: KF94s. These are the South Korean equivalent of N95s. Like KN95s, they don’t have NIOSH approval because they aren’t made in the U.S. But they do have an excellent efficiency rating of at least 94. A few high-quality KF94 respirators include: 

If you’re curious about masks that aren’t on FDA or CDC lists, one of the best sources for quality control is Aaron Collins, a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science who tests and reviews face masks. Collins publishes in-depth reviews of face masks on his YouTube channel, and adds the results to an extensive Google spreadsheet. With a little internet digging and the right advice, you should be able to find high-quality masks that work for you and your family.  (And don’t worry about going through your masks too quickly — find out how to sanitize and reuse your N95s, KN95s, and KF94s!)

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