Seeking advice: I bought some N95 masks, but how do I know whether they’re real or fake?

fake n95 masks
Photo via michael_swan/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The coronavirus vaccine has forced us to adapt to a new normal. One day, if people take precautions and wear their masks and get the vaccine when it’s available, perhaps the new normal will revert back to the way things used to be.

Until then, you might have questions about how you’re supposed to live your life in this new world. Hopefully, we can give you the answers.

So, as we do our best Dear Abby and/or Ask Ann Landers impression, let’s answer the query that’s most on your mind.

Q: For the last few months, I’ve mostly been wearing cloth masks when I go out in public. I’ve occasionally used those blue surgical masks as well, but they leave gaps on the sides of my face and I know it’s possible the coronavirus could sneak in and out that way. Besides, I like the cloth masks anyway, because mine have pretty flowers on them and because they show more of my personality. Anyway, a few weeks ago, I wondered if I should really be wearing N95 masks when I go out to Trader Joe’s and Home Depot. I looked on Amazon, and there are plenty available there. But how am I supposed to know whether they’re legitimate N95s or whether they’re just knockoffs? 

A: While government officials earlier in the pandemic asked citizens not to purchase N95s because there was a shortage of PPE for healthcare workers, more and more people in the U.S. have been wearing what has shown to be the most effective face covering (the N95 filtrates 95% of particulate matter from the air). And yes, it’s possible to find those N95s online. But like you posited, there are fakes out there. The good news: It’s possible to determine what’s real and what’s not. 

U.S. Customs certainly has been busy with counterfeit N95s, and CBS News reported that officials have confiscated about 15 million of them. In September, when 500,000 fakes were seized, 10% of them had a filter efficiency rating below 95%. So yeah, wearing an N95 that isn’t actually an N95 is neither helpful nor safe. 

Here’s how to know if what you’re wearing is legit. According to the CDC, these are some signs that your N95 might not be as advertised: 

  • No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator
  • No approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband
  • No NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) markings
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins)
  • Claims of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any respiratory protection for children)
  • Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands

If all else fails, you can check to see if the manufacturer you are using is CDC approved. Either way, you should avoid using Amazon or eBay to buy. If you’d rather not use an N95 or fall victim to a fake, here are other face masks that are effective in stopping virus transmission. By the way, despite the potential for gaps, surgical masks are also effective against halting the coronavirus, probably more so than a regular cloth mask. 

If you missed our last Dear Abby offering, we answered a question about whether it was possible to hold a safe Super Bowl party. Hopefully, if you did, you kept it as safe as possible.

Josh Katzowitz

Written by Josh Katzowitz