Masks may not be a constant requirement in public spaces anymore, but for people who want to decrease their chances of infection, find themselves in higher-risk situations, or have medical conditions that increase their risk of severe infection — finding the right one to wear is still a necessity.
“This is an endemic respiratory virus that’ll never be eradicated or eliminated,” said Amesh Adalja, MD, FIDSA, a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It has settled out of the acute phase of the pandemic and into what it’s probably going to look like for the next several years, if not forever.”
Masks continue to be one of the best ways to mitigate risk. But to be effective, they don’t necessarily need to be N95 or KN95, said Adalja. “In most cases, I’m comfortable wearing a surgical mask when I’m seeing a patient with COVID,” he said. Homemade masks are also a good choice, as long as they’re maintained properly, said Dr. Rebecca Choudhury, assistant professor of medicine (Infectious Diseases) at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Dr. Choudhury discourages people from wearing a surgical mask underneath a KN95 or N95 mask because it breaks the airtight or nearly airtight seal that the latter forms. While medical providers may wear surgical masks over N95s, that’s to extend the use of the N95. “It makes no difference in the effectiveness of either mask,” she said.
Consumers should also be vigilant about what they’re buying. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 60% of KN95 masks sold in the U.S. are counterfeit or misrepresent the level of protection they offer. Genuine N95 respirators are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which maintains a database of all TC approval numbers and lists several known counterfeit masks and manufacturers on their website.
Below are masks that adhere to recommendations made by Drs. Choudhury and Adalja.
IFM INDIANA FACE MASK N95 Respirator Masks | Box of 25 | NIOSH APPROVED N95 | Made in USA
First things first: the IFM Indiana Mask is approved by the NIOSH and has a clear NIOSH approval label on the packaging, on the masks themselves, and on the seller’s website. If you’re especially concerned about counterfeit masks, the label also includes a testing and certification (TC) approval number
The company has also published videos about how to ensure that your mask fits properly. This step cannot be overlooked, says Dr. Choudhury. “In order to better filter infectious particles from the air, you want to select a size and style of mask that fully covers your nose, mouth, and chin without leaving large gaps between the edges of the mask and your face.”
By virtue of having five layers — an outer layer, three filtration levels, and an inner layer — this mask also offers protection that other masks cannot. “The N95 is considered a respirator, so it’s actually filtering the air particles in a way that a surgical mask is not able to do,” says Dr. Adalja. “The surgical mask is primarily designed to stop bigger respiratory droplets.” Overall, the mask offers a 95% filtration rate and comes in packs of 25.
N95 Face Mask,30 Pack NIOSH Certified N95 Disposable Respirator 5-Ply Safety Breathable Face Masks
This mask is easy to fold and has a silicon cord that makes wearing more comfortable. It also uses electrostatic fabric that allows for low breathing resistance while still providing premium protection. It comes in packs of 30 and each mask is individually wrapped.
Who It’s For: Folks looking for a super protective, general-use mask for avoiding infection
Why We Chose It: This mask uses electrostatic fabric for low breathing resistance alongside the premium protection.
When to Wear It: Anytime, anywhere — this is a great everyday mask for grabbing on your way out the door.
best for glasses
3M™ Aura™ Particulate Respirator 9205+, N95, 240 ea/Case
From reputable brand 3M, this mask is constructed especially for people wearing glasses. Its curved profile allows more room for eyewear and is also meant to direct exhaled air away from the nose panel to keep your specks from fogging up. It’s approved for at least 95% filtration efficiency.
Who It’s For: Mask wearers who are sick of their glasses fogging up.
Why We Chose It: It offers similar protection as the other masks but is also specifically designed to accommodate eyewear.
When to Wear It: Anywhere where your breath is warmer than the air around it, which is when fog forms.
N95 Face Mask Black,50 Pack NIOSH Certified N95 Disposable Respirator 5-Ply Safety Breathable Face Masks
With five layers of protection, an adjustable nose clip, and high elastic ear loops, this mask provides at least 95% filtration efficiency and is easy to fit and wear comfortably. It’s also waterproof and comes in packs of 50.
Who It’s For: People, like food service workers, who need a comfortable mask that can also withstand contact with liquid.
Why We Chose It: A soggy, disintegrating mask is the last thing you want on your face.
When to Wear It: Outside, or anywhere else where your mask might encounter wetness.
PandMedic MedicPro – Medical Grade N95 Mask – NIOSH Approved N95 Respirator Mask – Protective Face Covering with Headloop – Made in the U.S.A – 10 Count
These individually-wrapped masks come in packs of 10 and offer an adjustable nose clip to make sure the seal is both effective and comfortable. They’re also equipped with water-resistant technology and filter out moisture droplets, saliva, dust, and pollen.
Who It’s For: Anyone who’s having trouble fitting into other masks and / or has a nose that may require special accommodation.
Why We Chose It: Because a secure seal is so important to the mask fitting and every face is shaped differently.
When to Wear It: Outside, especially during pollen season or when it’s especially dusty.
BEST FOR A SECURE FIT
3M™ Aura™ Particulate Respirator 9205+, N95, 440 ea/Case
Another mask from 3M, this one is collapse resistant and comes with a chin tab that helps the mask stick on the face. It’s also approved for at least 95% filtration efficiency and employs the same anti-fogging glasses technology.
Who It’s For: People who are struggling to find a properly-fitting mask elsewhere.
Why We Chose It: If the adjustable nose piece and high ear loops still aren’t working for you (see above), this mask may give you the fit you need.
When to Wear It: During high-movement activities that could cause your other masks to jostle around or collapse.
best for lengthy uses
3M™ Particulate Respirator 8210, N95 160 EA/Case
This 3M mask has a welded dual point attachment to ensure that the mask is snug against your face for the entire day. It’s also approved for 95% filtration efficiency and comes in either cases of 20 or boxes of 160.
Who It’s For: Anyone who struggles with masks that connect behind the ears or is still struggling to snugly fit another style of mask on their face
Why We Chose It: The straps go around your head instead of your ears, offering another fit option (though it may take some time to get used to it).
When to Wear It: When you’re going to be masked up for a while (think: transatlantic flight) and need to reduce the pressure on your ears.
Frequently Asked Questions About N95 and KN95 Masks
Is there a difference between an N95 and a KN95 mask?
Are these masks effective against COVID subvariants, including Omicron?
Is an N95 mask the same thing as a surgical mask?