As you may or may not recall, the first sign of pandemic panic buying was the disappearance of face masks from the shelves. As of 2/28/2020, every mask of every description had been bought up at our local Home Depot (Post #535). And that was before there was even a single known case of COVID-19 in Virginia.
Only after that did all the legitimate retailers and manufacturers pull all N95 masks out of retail channels and reserve everything for health care workers. Joe Citizen hasn’t been able to buy a genuine N95 mask, from a reputable retailer, for going on 9 months now.
The shortage of N95 masks is a root cause of the CDC’s confused and confusing advice. Advice that is still fodder for COVID denialists today. First, CDC said masks weren’t necessary, and that social distancing was enough. Then, around 4/3/2020, they changed that to “wear a cloth mask”, where the cloth part was purely social engineering, to discourage people from trying to buy proper masks. But they would not mention the A-word (aerosols).
Last month, the CDC finally (and grudgingly) began to mention the possibility of aerosol (airborne) transmission of COVID-19. And yet, Joe Citizen still is not allowed to buy masks that are good at filtering out those aerosols. And that’s enforced by the simple expedient of the US manufacturers not placing those masks in normal retail channels.
But Nature — and free markets — abhor a vacuum. I’ve been wondering when that ban on N95 mask sales to the general public would start showing some cracks. All along, throughout the pandemic, you could have gone on (e.g.) Ebay and found sellers advertising masks as N95. But that’s a pretty dodgy way to get a mask that you might have to depend on. Instead, I’ve been checking in, from time to time, with what I consider the big three sources for legitimate quality masks for the average consumer: Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Amazon.
Home Depot and Lowe’s have little of interest. Any masks on their websites that looked to be able to filter at the N95 level are unavailable for sale. That’s unchanged since this spring. They do offer N95 (P95) half-face respirators, but that’s not something you’d go shopping in, and those have largely been available throughout the pandemic. The only interesting new item is that tight-fitting nuisance dust masks might be back on the shelves in some stores. That was good news to me, as the mask I wear when I shop is made from a tight-fitting dust mask covered with Filtrete ™ material (Post #780).
But Amazon offered a few surprises. And so, as I did with the “KN95” market (Post #747), I think it’s worth categorizing what’s out there, on Amazon, today.
I’ll work my way through the duds first, then list two that might legitimately be N95 or near-N95 masks at the end. Skip to there if that’s what you’re after.
1: Genuine 3M N95 masks, marked for sale to healthcare workers only: Almost all of the apparently genuine N95 stock was clearly marked as being reserved for health care workers. These are mostly 3M, but there are a handful of other high-end manufacturers represented. That was unchanged from this spring. Click on anything saying 3M and N95 and you’d see a notice that these were reserved for health care workers.
2: Supposedly genuine 3M N95 masks, for sale to the general public. All were probably fakes or misrepresentations. The warning signs being the following:
- Comments by apparently knowledgeable persons pointing out the details that show that these are counterfeit.
- Complaints of poor quality on a 3M mask. (3M is the gold standard).
- Sold by a business unrelated to PPE supply; business address in the sunbelt (particularly Florida); business address that’s just an office in a suite of offices.
- Advertising 3M, but marking the brand as “generic” in small print.
- Selling an item that other vendors had marked as being reserved for health care providers only; and in particular, selling multiple such items.
There were only a handful of those, and most could be traced back to a single seller. The likelihood that a shoe company in Florida could have gotten their hands on a wide variety of genuine 3M N95s is, I would say, pretty much zero.
As far as I could tell, every one of these had a high likelihood of being counterfeit. My rule is that if some product appears with the “healthcare providers only” label on Amazon, anyone else offering it without that label is probably offering counterfeit or misrepresented product.
3: Chinese-made masks claiming to be N95/KN95 and NIOSH-certified. I went over this in an earlier post on KN95 masks. Some of these might be legit. But given the supply-chain issues that kept Chinese masks out of the US market, and the sub-N95 ratings that those masks got in the recent masks testing published in JAMA, it’s not clear what you’re buying.
At least some that I looked at had incorrect or dubious language on the box (e.g., N95 Approved). The CDC has a good page on what must be printed on a NIOSH-approved mask, and how to spot counterfeits. As well as examples of the most common counterfeits.
Plausibly, most of those might actually be pretty good masks. Many have the right “form factor” of metal nosepiece and behind-the-head (instead of over-the-ear) straps. But they probably filter somewhat less well than the N95 standard. But there’s no way to tell.
4: KN95 masks. KN95 is a Chinese standard, and has no legal standing in the U.S. It has come to represent a style of mask, in the US, as described in Post #747. Some claimed to be FDA authorized (“EUA”, emergency use authorization). But these could be pretty much anything, and you really have no way to tell.
5: FK94 masks. This was a new one on me. That’s a Korean standard, very nearly as good as N95, and these claim to be made to that standard. If those are legitimate and seal well, they’ll do fine. But as with Chinese-made KN95 masks, there’s no way for you to tell. This isn’t a US standard, and I don’t think anyone enforces anything about it in the US.
6: PM2.5 masks. As I discussed in an earlier posting, this isn’t a filtration standard, but is a description of the size of particle that the manufacture claims the mask filters. Some might be good, some might not, no way to tell.
Two possible winners
One possible hit: Kimberly-Clark N95 respirators, not for medical use, shipped and sold by Amazon. Package of 50 for about $50. Made in U.S.A. These are NIOSH approved (and I checked, they are on the NIOSH list), but not FDA approved for medical use.
This had all the earmarks of a legitimate item. This is an oddball respirator in that they are quite cheaply made, some versions of this have an adhesive strip for the nose rather than a metal nosepiece. Presumably, that cheap construction makes these true one-use disposables. And they are clearly packed for commercial use. Looking around, I see a number of plausibly legitimate business-to-business vendors selling these at around this price, and selling similar Kimberly-Clark masks, mostly aimed at the food service industry.
The NIOSH certification means that, if these are legitimate US-made Kimberly-Clark masks, they will filter to the N95 standard. They are just cheap disposables aimed at the non-medical market. If I had to guess, beyond the cheap construction, they may not have the liquid barrier that medical masks have to have. (Medical N95s have to stop aerosols and fluids.) That would not matter for consumer use.
Another possible hit: Bluegrass Masks cup-shaped face mask. I’m less certain about this one. This is a unique design, and is not NIOSH certified, and does not quite filter at the N95 level. Instead, the U.S. manufacturer went into business making these, and had them certified by an independent lab. By eye, that certification is modestly lower than the proper N95 standard.
I can’t quite make my mind up whether these folks are legitimate or not. Everything about their story appears to check out. This is a LLC that was formed during the pandemic. Their offices are in an industrial park. They’ll give you a 30 cent per mask discount if you’ll do the finally assembly step yourself. (Thus suggesting that they probably are the legit manufacturers of this mask.) Their design is odd, in that the mask is basically a rigid hemisphere. In fact, a lot of the comments are more or less that the mask may work, but it’s not comfortable.
The only thing that puts me off is that their presumably own-design and own-manufacture mask appears almost identical to the Makrite Pre-Formed Cone Particulate Respirator Mask. (Makrite is a Taiwan business with a US manufacturing plant ). That mask is frequently found as counterfeit, and also gets a lot of “uncomfortable to wear” comments.
So this is one where I have to say, maybe this is the real deal, maybe not. The lab testing suggests pretty good filtration. But the shape of the mask body appears identical to that of a frequently-counterfeited Taiwanese mask. These might be worth a try, particularly if the mask shape is a good match for your face.
If you’re shopping for an N95 mask right now, there’s obviously some risk of buying masks that claim to meet the N95 standard, but don’t. All you can do is use your common sense to try to shift the odds in your favor.
Best guess, anything that clearly could be used by medical personnel, but is offered for sale to the general public, runs a high risk of being counterfeit. If some fly-by-night vendor offers you genuine 3M N95s, you really have to wonder how they managed to get hold of them. Because 3M is doing its best to be a good citizen and reserve those for the healthcare market only.
And so, my guess is that you should steer clear of anything that appears to be a standard medically-approved N95 respirator. E.g., any 3M N95s. Because those should not be offered for sale to the general public. And if they are, you really have to question how and why those are for sale, if genuine.
Anything not made to the US N95 standard, or sold from a manufacturer you’ve never heard of, bears some risk, if your goal is to procure a genuine N95 mask. The whole reason the FDA wouldn’t approve Chinese-made KN95s is that a lot of them don’t actually meet the US N95 standard. (That was in fact demonstrated in an August 2020 JAMA publication.)
But, an oddball single-use disposable KN95, not suitable for medical use, generally sold to the food service/food production industry, from a US manufacturer, at about the right price, packaged for industrial use, sold by Amazon itself? And only recently offered on Amazon? Of what I can see for sale, that’s my best bet for buying a mask that actually will filter aerosols as advertised. Can’t be sure of anything, but of all that I saw offered for sale, I give that one the highest odds of actually being the real deal.