Healthy Body

Here’s What Epidemiologists Want You To Know About the Best N95 Masks To Buy

Photo: Getty Images/MesquitaFMS
Many of us have been wearing masks for nearly two years now. And still, so many questions remain. With the presence of the COVID-19 omicron variant once again throwing many parts of our lives into question, you may be wondering what mask will give you the best chance of protecting yourself and others from the virus. We know we were—so we asked an epidemiologist to name the best N95 masks to buy.

Still not sure what an N95 is? Here's the deal: When worn properly, N95 respirators provide the most protection against COVID-19, says epidemiologist Karen Edwards, MS, PhD, of the University of California Irvine Program in Public Health. "These masks meet specific requirements in terms of the size of the particles they are designed to filter out and are also designed to provide a very close facial fit so that they form a seal around your nose and mouth," she explains. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), N95 respirators that have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) filter up to 95 percent—go figure!—of particles in the air that could contain COVID-19.

That being said, Dr. Edwards says it's important to make sure your N95 fits properly to receive the maximum amount of protection. "The key is to be sure that it fits snugly. Because of the snug fit, they are uncomfortable to wear for long periods, but having an N95 that is loose will not provide the same level of protection as a properly fitting N95," says Dr. Edwards. "Also, for people who have chronic respiratory, cardiac or other medical conditions that make breathing difficult, they should check with their healthcare provider about what mask would be best for them." And don't forget to wear your mask over your nose at all times.

CDC-approved N95 respirators

Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator
Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator — $56.00

This N95 pouch respirator looks a bit like a duck bill, but it still provides 95 percent filtration efficiency, and gives you some extra room to breathe. Each mask has a bendable nosepiece and two headbands to ensure you get a tight fit, and the box comes with 50 masks.

Said one reviewer, “This ‘duckbill’ or ‘pouch’ N95 mask is a simple, brilliant design that folds flat. It conforms smoothly to the face, and the fabric feels soft. The bridge-of-nose wire is actually two parallel wires and molds well to the nose slope, preventing fog on eyeglasses. The mask stays secure with two, pull-out, elastic head-and-neck straps textured like crepe paper for better grip—no irritating ear loops. The fabric stays off the nostrils and mouth even during heavy inhalation, because of the mask’s tapered shape and semi-rigid seams. Breathing is very comfortable.”

3M 9205+ Aura Particulate Respirator
3M 9205+ Aura Particulate Respirator — $10.00

These 3M masks (each set comes with three) have a three-panel design that let you breathe without sucking the entire mask in. They’re designed to direct air away from the nose, so if you wear glasses, you have to worry less about the lenses fogging up. The adjustable nosepiece and chin tab help create a snug fit around faces of all sizes, and they fold flat for easy portability.’

One customer commented, “I live with someone who is immunocompromised, so I take my face masks very seriously. Previously I always wore a surgical grade 3M N95 mask. Unfortunately those masks aren’t too comfortable. I had my eye on the 3M Aura mask for a long time, but it wasn’t available until recently. Now that I have one, it’s my all-time favorite mask. It’s comfortable, easy to put on, has a good seal all around, the straps aren’t too tight, and it has 2 straps that go around the back of your head so that it doesn’t pull on your ears. It also doesn’t fog up glasses as much as other masks.”

wellbefore n95 mask
WellBefore N95 Medical Respirator Mask — $2.00

These respirators have the traditional fold-flat design and have adjustable head straps as well as four layers of non-woven fabric to keep unwanted particles out. You can buy them in bulk (minimum order quantity is 10, and they come individually wrapped) in either white or black.

Said one customer, “The WellBefore N95 Medical Respirator doesn’t go over your ears. It goes behind your head. SO much more comfortable especially if you are wearing it for any length of time.”

DemeTECH NIOSH N95 Respirator Face Mask
DemeTECH NIOSH N95 Respirator Face Mask — $65.00

The DemeTECH N95 fold-style respirator mask has attached headbands and a nose clip to secure it to your face no matter how long you’re wearing it. It has five layers of protection, filtering out over 98 percent of airborne particles, and the edges are heat-sealed to be tear-resistant.

One customer said, “Comfortable with foam over the bridge of the nose. Double straps that over the head not around the ears. Wide metal band that can be formed easily for a tight fit. American made and on the NIOSH approved list.”

Honeywell DF300H910 N95 Particulate Disposable Respirators
Honeywell DF300H910 N95 Particulate Disposable Respirators — $44.00

Stock up on N95 masks with this box of 50. They have multiple layers, including a smooth inner liner for comfort, and the head straps are latex-free. There’s a foam nose cushion and adjustable nose clip to give you a comfortable, tight fit around your face.

One customer said, “I am a healthcare provider, so I must wear N95 masks all day. Over the last 2 years, these are the most comfortable, well fitting masks I have worn. The foam over the nose prevents me from getting painful marks and I feel like the mask is secure on my face. I would definitely recommend.”

If you're seeing countless variations of masks while you're out and about, Dr. Edwards is here to offer a bit of clarification. "The N95 masks meet U.S standards and would be best. KN95 meet Chinese standards and are their equivalent of the N95, while the KF94 masks are made out of similar material as the N95 and are made in South Korea. All are designed to fit snugly. And if they fit properly, they will provide good protection," she says. So if you can only get your hands on a KN95 or a KF94, that's great, too.

Just make sure you're purchasing all of these masks from a reputable source: The CDC estimates that up to 60 percent of N95s are counterfeits, and you should also verify the efficacy of your KN95s and KF94s. "If you have doubts, check out CDC’s webpage that helps to identify those that manufacturers and models that are approved and legitimate," says Dr. Edwards. Before you click "buy" on any mask, go ahead and make sure the manufacturer made this CDC-approved list and has the NIOSH seal of approval. We got this.

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