KN95, N95 and More: A Look at the Different Masks and What You Should Know About Each

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KN95s, N95s, cloth, surgical and more - there are a lot of options when it comes to wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

With pharmacies across the country preparing to distribute free N95 masks as part of a new government effort, what should you know about the different kinds of masks and how to properly use them?

Here's a breakdown.

What are the different kinds of masks?

First, there is one important distinction between certain masks.

There are masks and then there are respirators.

Masks and respirators offer different levels of protection depending on the type and how they are worn.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "masks are made to contain droplets and particles you breathe, cough, or sneeze out."

"If they fit closely to the face, they can also provide you some protection from particles spread by others, including the virus that causes COVID-19," the CDC's website states.

Respirators, on the other hand, filter the air and particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19.

"They can also contain droplets and particles you breathe, cough, or sneeze out so you do not spread them to others," the CDC states.

These are the various types of masks and respirators, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cloth: Cloth masks can be made from a variety of fabrics and many types of cloth masks are available.

Surgical/Procedure Masks: Disposable procedure masks are widely available. They are sometimes referred to as surgical masks or medical procedure masks.

KN95 Respirators (and similar options): According to the CDC, "some respirators are designed and tested to meet international standards." The most common masks meeting an international standard are KN95 respirators.

KN95s are approved by China. Similar masks known as KF94s are approved by South Korea.

But other examples include 1st, DL2, DL3, DS2, DS3, FFP2, FFP3, KN100, KP95, KP100, P2, P3, PFF2, PFF3, R95, and Special.

It's important to note that the CDC said "about 60% of KN95 respirators NIOSH evaluated during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 did not meet the requirements that they intended to meet."

The CDC notes that international respirators "are designed to standards that do not often have a quality requirement."

N95 Respirator (and similar options): One of the most prominent respirators approved by the NIOSH are N95 respirators.

Other similar options include: N99, N100, P95, P99, P100, R95, R99, and R100.

The CDC said all of the above options offer "the same or better protection as an N95 respirator."

In an important note, the CDC highlighted that there is a specialty version of N95 respirators called "surgical" N95 respirators, which "provide additional protection against hazards present during medical procedures, such as blood splatter" and should be reserved for use by healthcare personnel only.

Other Masks:

According to the CDC, some masks are "designed and tested to ensure they perform at a consistent level." There are various standards that have been issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the masks are labeled based on the standard they meet. Those labels include the following:

The CDC points to a list of masks that meet these standards and more information on their availability at the NIOSH Personal Protective Equipment Information (PPE-Info) webpage.

Gaiters, Face Shields and Scarves:

The CDC added that a gaiter can be worn as a mask with two layers or folded to make two layers. Face shields are not officially recommended, however, as the efficacy is unknown at this time.

For those in cold weather, such as in Chicago, federal officials recommend wearing a scarf, ski mask or balaclava over a face covering. These clothing items are not substitutes for masks, though.

Which mask is the best to use?

While fit plays a big role in how well a mask protects you, the CDC notes that "a respirator has better filtration, and if worn properly the whole time it is in use, can provide a higher level of protection than a cloth or procedural mask."

KN95 masks, as well as N95s, filter out at least 95% of air particles, but N95 masks have stricter pressure drop requirements and are regularly considered the "gold standard" for masking.

Earlier in January, the CDC updated its masking recommendations as omicron cases surged nationwide. In the updated guidance, the agency said N95 and KN95 masks offer the best protection against COVID-19 and people "may choose" to wear them.

Previously, the CDC didn't recommend that the general population wear N95 masks or KN95s, fearing that demand would impact the supply in health care settings. 

Disposable surgical masks were next on the list, however the CDC advised making sure they fit properly. Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, according to agency officials.

Speaking earlier this month, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, stressed that "everybody wearing a mask is the most important thing."

Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady discussed what to know about various mask options—cloth, surgical, KN95, and N95— and which mask you should be wearing.

"The biggest jump in protection is from no mask to any mask," she said during a question-and-answer session.

Arwady at the time said KN95 masks are "good to use" when available, she said, but signified the importance of overall mask use.

"As long as it feels comfortable for you to have one of these on, wear one," she said. "It's got a higher protection level."

What about double masking? How should you wear each mask?

How your mask should fit and whether or not you can double up depends on the type of mask.

Here are the recommendations:

Cloth and Surgical Masks

Look for:

  • A proper fit over your nose, mouth, and chin to prevent leaks
  • Multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric
  • Nose wire
  • Fabric that blocks light when held up to bright light source

Health officials stressed that cloth masks should not contain gaps around the sides of the face, exhalation valves or a single layer of thin fabric.


  • Knot and tuck ear loops of a 3-ply mask where they join the edge of the mask
    • For disposable procedure masks, fold and tuck the unneeded material under the edges.
  • Use masks that attach behind the neck and head with either elastic bands or ties (instead of ear loops)
  • For additional protection, the CDC said people can wear a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask that has multiple layers of fabric. This way of wearing a mask may be a better fit for those with a beard.

Arwady previously said that while double-masking is a good way to provide “excellent protection," she too stressed the importance of having a mask that properly fits.

“If you’ve got gaps, you can have droplets leaking out. We’ve been recommending wearing one of the surgical masks with a cloth mask over it,” she said. “That’s a good way to have excellent protection."

N95, KN95 (and similar options)

Look for:

  • They seal tightly to your face when fitted properly.
  • It is important to pick a respirator that fits your face and seals well since not all fit the same.

Do NOT wear respirators:

  • If they have exhalation valves, vents, or other openings (this applies to international respirators)
  • If it is hard to breathe while wearing them
  • If they are wet or dirty
  • With other masks or respirators

If you find certain N95s difficult to wear for long periods, experts suggest exploring the different shapes and styles available to see what works best for you.

Can you reuse masks? What about cleaning them?

Health officials recommend cleaning reusable cloth masks "as soon as they become dirty" or at least once per day.

Disposable masks should be thrown away after one use, according to the CDC.

N95s and KN95s should not be washed, but experts have said you can get more use out of them if you let the air out between uses.

"You can store your mask temporarily to reuse later," the CDC's website reads. "Remove your mask correctly and wash your hands after touching a used mask. Keep it in a dry, breathable bag (like a paper or mesh fabric bag) to keep it clean between uses. When reusing your mask, keep the same side facing out."

How can you spot fake or counterfeit masks?

According to the CDC, more than 60% of the KN95 masks that are on the market in the United States are counterfeit, and Americans have reported similar issues with the more-protective N95 masks, which are regulated and approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Here are some tips from the CDC when trying to determine whether an N95 filtering facepiece respirator (FFR’s) is legitimate:

-NIOSH approved coverings will always have these designations: N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99, or P100.

-No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator (FFR)

-NIOSH markings must be clearly visible either on the covering itself, or within the packaging  

-NIOSH-approved coverings must have an approval number on the mask or the headband

-NIOSH must be spelled correctly  

-Decorative fabric or add-ons are not featured on approved-coverings

-NIOSH does not approve respirators for children, so if packaging includes that claim, it is likely fake

-NIOSH-approved FFR’s have headbands, not ear-loops.

The NIOSH and the CDC have produced a database where individuals can verify whether their N95 masks are approved by federal regulators.

For additional tips on how to spot a counterfeit N95 mask, you can visit the CDC's website.

KN95 masks

There is one specific thing for individuals to keep in mind if they are shopping for a KN95 mask. If that mask bears the “NIOSH” marking, then it is not legitimate, because the institute does not approve KN95 masks, or any other masks that are designed to adhere to international standards.

KN95 masks are manufactured in China, and adhere to Chinese governmental standards, according to the CDC.

Other tips:

-If a listing claims to be “legitimate,” it likely isn’t.

-Look at transactions and reviews, if possible.

-Is the primary contact email address connected to the company’s website, or is it a free email account? If it’s a free email account, it’s likely the seller isn’t part of a reputable company.

-Look for bad grammar or typos in the listing.

Additional tips can be found on the CDC's website.

The government is giving out free N95 masks this month. Where can you get them?

CVS, Walgreens and Walmart are among the many U.S. retailers set to begin distribution of free N95 masks this week as part of a Biden administration initiative to battle a surge in COVID-19 cases related to the omicron variant.

A total of 400 million masks from the Strategic National Stockpile will be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers enrolled in the nationwide Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.

Shipments were slated to begin last week, and the administration hopes to have the program fully operational by early February, a White house official said.

According to Illinois-based pharmacy chain Walgreens, the first stores to offer up free masks are expected to begin distribution as early as Friday.

"We expect the first stores to begin offering masks on Friday, January 28 and will continue on a rolling basis in the days and weeks following," a spokesperson for the company told NBC 5 in a statement. "Participating stores will have signage indicating mask availability."

Similarly, CVS said it will begin offering free N95 masks at pharmacy locations in the coming weeks.

A spokeswoman for Kroger, which operates the Chicago-area supermarket chain Mariano's, said stores with pharmacies will serve as distribution points for N95 masks, and more details will be shared this week.

Walmart plans to make masks available starting late this week at the front of select Walmart and Sam's Club stores, according to a statement provided by the retailer.

Those who pick up masks will be limited to three per person, federal officials have said.

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