How to Know if Your N95 Mask Is Counterfeit or Real?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) authorized a second booster of the COVID-19 vaccine for adults over 50 and certain immunocompromised people in March 2022. But the organization's masking recommendations remained for communities with high and medium levels of COVID-19. And, since February 2, 2021, masks have been required on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States, plus in US airports.
With the strong demand for masks came a boom in counterfeit production. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told CNN that they seized over 14.6 million counterfeit face masks entering the US between the start of the pandemic and the end of 2020.
Even health professionals have been scammed. In February 2021, hospitals across Washington State pulled select N95 masks off their shelves and sent them for analysis after an investigation uncovered counterfeits, reported NBC. Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) said the masks closely resembled N95 masks manufactured by a company called 3M, which were in high demand because of the availability of smaller sizes and snug fit around the face.
The N95 mask (known as a respirator) is basically the gold standard in face covering; its unique electrostatic filter blocks at least 95% of large and small airborne particles, if fitted properly. Plus, the secure fit to the face reduces the risk of leakage—a common issue with a loose-fitting cloth or paper mask.
For over a year into the pandemic, the CDC advised the public not to buy and wear N95 masks because they were intended for health care workers. But as far back as January 22, 2021, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, told CNN, "An N95 that's well-fitted clearly is the best that you can do."
On January 14, 2022, the CDC acknowledged that N95 respirators offer the most protection and removed any mentions of supply shortages for the general population.
Whether you decide to purchase an N95 mask or get a free one at a pharmacy listed on the CDC website, here's how to spot if your mask is counterfeit.
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NIOSH Approval Is Key
The most important thing to look for is approval by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is the part of the CDC that focuses on worker safety and health. All filtering facepiece respirators—including N95 masks—must be certified by NIOSH before they can be used in the workplace.
NIOSH-approved masks always come with an approval label on or inside the mask packaging, either on the box or in the users' instructions. The mask should also have an abbreviated approval marking beginning with "TC" and the NIOSH logo printed on the mask itself. You can check the approval number or see sample facepiece markings on the NIOSH website.
Note also that any claim that the respirator is approved for kids is false—NIOSH doesn't approve masks for children.
Red Flags Before You Buy
The CDC offers guidance for spotting a fake mask or mask company online, and it comes down to the basics: Are there typos, bad grammar, or other errors on the website? Do you see unfinished or blank pages, dummy text, broken links, and misspelled domains? If the answer is "yes" to any of these, give it a swerve.
If you're not buying directly from a supplier (i.e., you're going through a third-party marketplace), keep in mind a few more things. If the listing uses the words "genuine" or "real," it's probably not. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.
Check the seller's history too. Make sure they haven't frequently changed the price of the item or the selection of products they're selling. You'll want to stick to a seller that's known for providing masks. Finally, pay attention to the reviews—negative reviews, either for the product or the seller, are always a sign to steer clear.
And remember, every approved N95 mask has headbands rather than ear loops, and N95s definitely won't ever have any decorative elements, like sequins. Instead of decorations, look for official NIOSH markings on the facepiece.
If you don't have an N95 mask, there's no reason to worry. What's more important is ensuring your mask fits well and is comfortable to wear, Shruti Gohil, MD, professor of medicine and associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention with UCI Health, told Health. "Choose a mask that you're likely to wear and keep it on whenever you are in public and try not to fidget with it," said Dr. Gohil.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.