Is that a real respirator or fake face cover? Here’s how to find out.
Since the pandemic began, hospitals have faced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially real N95 masks. Respirator masks have been nearly impossible to find for people at high risk outside medical facilities, who are not given access to the supplies provided to doctors and nurses.
Dwindling supplies have led to an unreliable retail market, with thousands of counterfeit N95 respirators mixed in with genuine N95s for sale, plus real and fake masks from other countries such as KN95 masks from China and KR94 masks from Korea. The CDC and NIOSH have raised the alarm about these counterfeit respirators, but the information is complicated, confusing, and hard to find all in one place.
So how do you tell if an N95 mask is real or counterfeit? And even more importantly, how can you test if the mask you have will actually protect you?
Disclaimer: Pandemic Pal has compiled this guide from several authoritative sources including the CDC and medical professionals. However, as this is a rapidly evolving situation, data and science-based recommendations could change at any time. If that occurs, we will update the information accordingly. This page contains affiliate links, which means if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. Learn more.
Why People Outside Hospitals Need N95 Masks
Here at Pandemic Pal, our goal is to help people who are at high risk of life-threatening complications from COVID-19 but have been shut out from access to N95 masks. This includes people with a disability or chronic illness who may need extra protection for essential outings like doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping. It also includes home health care workers such as personal care attendants, who are often hired privately or paid by Medicaid and do not have an agency or medical facility to provide them with PPE. These communities and others have no choice but to buy masks wherever they can find them, often at inflated prices.
We help by automatically compiling a list of N95 masks for sale, allowing shoppers to compare prices and evaluate sellers rather than desperately buying the first masks they find. But we have no way of verifying if masks are genuine or effective — that’s up to you. We hope this guide will provide you with the information you need to evaluate masks for sale and make an educated decision about your purchase.
Signs Your N95 Mask Is Real
- NIOSH-approved respirators have head straps, which provide a tighter fit and greater protection against viruses and particles. High-quality KN95 respirators also have head straps, however, some cheaper but still legitimate KN95 masks use ear loops. Ear loops do not provide as tight of a seal, so you should add a head strap.
- All NIOSH-approved respirators have an approval label on the packaging and/or instructions. You can check the CDC Certified Respirator List to see if the mask you own or want to buy is listed there. For internationally produced masks such as KN95 from China, you can check the FDA Authorized Respirators List.
- Real respirator masks are not decorative like cloth masks and typically come in plain colors such as white, gray, and blue.
- If your respirator claims to be NIOSH-approved, check to see if it has the exterior markings shown in the image above. It should list an approval number (that you can verify using the link above), model number, filter class and efficiency level, NIOSH name spelled correctly and the brand name.
Signs Your N95 Mask Is Counterfeit
- Counterfeit respirators often have no facepiece markings (including NIOSH), and/or approval (i.e. TC) numbers on either the facepiece or headband.
- Use of fake approval numbers or stealing another company’s approval number. If the approval number does not match any items on the CDC/NIOSH or FDA lists above, or matches a product from a different manufacturer, the mask is counterfeit.
- It says NIOSH but has ear loops rather than head straps.
- NIOSH is often misspelled on counterfeit respirators.
- It has the FDA logo on the box. The FDA does not permit its logo to be used on products.
- It claims to be NIOSH-approved for use by children. NIOSH does not approve respirator masks for children.
Does Your N95 Respirator Work?
Believe it or not, there is actually a factor that is more important than how to tell if your N95 mask is real or counterfeit. And that is, does it actually work? After all, fake designer purses are often just as good as the real thing. However, in this case you’re trusting your health and life to a potentially poor-quality item, not carrying around your wallet and keys. So we don’t suggest buying masks that appear to be counterfeit. But if you have N95 respirators you suspect are fake, don’t just throw them away. Consider this counterfeit respirator that did extremely well on FDA tests. You need to test the masks in your possession before passing final judgment.
Here are three tests to try:
Test #1: Does It Hold Water?
Hold your mask by its elastic head bands or ear loops. Pour a small amount of water into the mask. Hang the mask up and watch carefully. Does water leak from the seam or elsewhere? If so, it is a poor-quality mask. By the way, this test will NOT ruin your mask. If the mask passes the test, just dump out the water, let it dry and you’re good to go.
Test #2: Does It Block Exhalation?
Put on your mask. Light a candle and try to blow it out. If you can’t blow the candle out, it’s a high-quality mask — though some surgical masks will also pass this test while not meeting N95 standards. If you can blow it out, the mask is poor-quality and will not offer adequate protection.
Test #3: Does It Pass the Smell Test?
Literally. Put on your mask. Open one of those little packets of Sweet’N Low and pour it into a spoon or small plate. Can you smell it only faintly, or is the odor strong? N95 respirators are supposed to filter out at least 95% of particles sized 3 microns or larger. Sweet’N Low, aka saccharin, particles are 7 microns in size, and therefore the smell should be significantly reduced when you wear a real N95 mask.
Does Your N95 Mask Protect Others?
When people see a mask labeled N95 or higher, and it seems to be genuine, they may assume it will not only protect them from infection, but prevent them from passing virus particles to others. That is not necessarily the case! You can have the highest quality, legitimate 3M respirator and still put others at risk — if your mask has an exhalation valve. These valves make it easier to breathe, but allow your unfiltered breath to escape. But don’t panic. If you have an N95 respirator mask with a valve, don’t throw it away, just wear a cloth mask or surgical mask over it.
Do Expired N95 Masks Still Work?
Let’s say you found an old but unused N95 mask in your garage, or you bought one off the Internet. You’re about to open the package when you realize it’s past its expiration date. Is it still safe to use? Will it protect you?
The CDC is testing this right now. You can see the detailed results here. So far, there have been mixed results, but in general the high-quality respirators from major American companies have performed well. All the 3M masks they tested passed. Some of the masks from lesser-known Chinese manufacturers didn’t fare so well.
If you have an expired respirator from a company you don’t usually see at the hardware or medical supply store, you’ll want to be more cautious. Do the tests above and consider doubling up or wearing a cloth mask over the N95. Also, check the elastic bands. This can be a failure point for older masks as they are prone to dry rot. You can sew or staple new elastic onto your mask to make it more secure. Just be careful not to damage the shell of the mask.
How to Make Your N95 Mask More Effective
If your N95 mask turns out to be counterfeit and/or of poor quality, we recommend buying a new one as soon as possible. But if that’s not possible — or if you have a good mask and you want to make it better and help it last longer, here are some tips.
- Double up. Wear two of the low-quality masks like the woman in the candle video featured above.
- Wear a cloth face covering or surgical mask over your N95 respirator to help it stay cleaner. This also protects others if your mask has a valve (see above).
- Most masks leak around the edges. For a tighter fit, turn your ear loops into a head strap using an ear saver.
- To improve the seal around the edges (for any kind of mask), cut a nylon stocking and wear it over the mask as shown above.
How to Disinfect Your N95 Mask for Reuse
Since genuine N95 masks are difficult to find, if you’ve managed to acquire one, you should keep using it for as long as possible. Here are instructions for how to sanitize your mask(s) at home.
1.25 quart plastic Ziploc container
- Preheat your oven to 85 degrees Celsius, or 185 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place the mask inside the container, face down.
- Cut a 2.5 x 2.5 inch square of paper towel and place it in the container alongside the mask.
- Add 10 drops of water to the paper towel.
- Place the lid on the container.
- Let it disinfect for 40 minutes.
- Remove, open lid and rotate 45 degrees. This will allow air to naturally flow around the mask and dry it out. Leave for 5 minutes.
- Your mask is safe to reuse!
For the latest news on masks, you can always check out the CDC. We hope this guide has helped you to tell if your N95 mask is real or counterfeit. Now that you know what to look for, you can shop for N95 masks with confidence!