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N95 vs. KN95: Which Mask Is Better for You?

PureWow logo PureWow 2/10/2021 (Sarah Stiefvater)

diagram © Liliboas; iStock / Getty Images

By now, we know how absolutely crucial masks are in protecting ourselves and others from COVID-19. But with new variants of the virus popping up in the United States, there’s a renewed interest in which types of masks can protect us the best. Though the gold standard among healthcare professionals seems to be the N95 mask, we’ve been seeing a lot of KN95 masks floating around. But are they equally effective? The short answer is, if you’re not working in healthcare, the KN95 mask might be a great option. Read on for everything you need to know.

What Is an N95 Mask?

According to the CDC, an N95 respirator (that’s the official term—respirator, not mask), is “a type of respirator which removes particles from the air that are breathed through it. These respirators filter out at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) particles. N95 FFRs [filtering facepiece respirator] are capable of filtering out all types of particles, including bacteria and viruses.” Respirators like N95s, including those intended for use in healthcare settings, are certified by the CDC or NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). In addition to stringent certification practices, N95 masks are typically tighter fitting than your run of the mill face mask, meaning they allow fewer particles in or out. (That’s why, if you’ve ever tried one, it feels almost sealed to your face.)

What Is a KN95 Mask?

Though they look and sound remarkably similar, a KN95 masks are held to entirely different standards than N95 masks. Both types are made from multiple layers of synthetic material and are designed to be worn over the mouth and nose, with straps that go behind your ears to hold the mask in place. The main difference lies in how the masks are certified.  Sean Kelly, founder of New Jersey-based PPE of America, told Rolling Stone, “N95 mask requirements are a bit more stringent regarding the pressure drop in the mask during breathing in, which makes the N95 more breathable than most KN95 masks. The N95 masks have similar requirements for exhaling. These requirements make the N95 mask a bit more advanced with the overall breathability for users.”

Which Is Better?

We checked in with Dr. Erika Schwartz, a concierge doctor in New York, who told us, “The KN95 are made to follow Chinese, not American, standards. A study in September found that 70 percent of KN95 masks in the U.S. were counterfeit.” (This is the study she’s talking about.) If you can get genuine KN95 masks, Dr. Schwartz says, they are as good as N95 masks at keeping particles 0.3 microns out. Adding that N95 masks are the gold standard, Dr. Schwartz tells us, “With the arrival of new strains, if you cannot find real N95 or KN95 you should consider double-masking so you get better protection.”

Also note that just because the KN95s may not meet CDC/NIOSH standards, they’re not useless—especially for folks who don’t work in healthcare. Michael Argentieri, vice president for technology and safety at ECRI (the healthcare nonprofit that led the study mentioned above), said in a statement, “KN95 masks that don’t meet U.S. regulatory standards still generally provide more respiratory protection than surgical or cloth masks and can be used in certain clinical settings.”

RELATED: 8 Breathable Face Masks Made for Running, Biking and Working Out



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