Recognized as the best protection against Participating pharmacies are currently distributing the first batch of masks from the 400 million free N95 masks promised by the White House. Customers are limited to three masks per person., N95 masks are at pharmacies, retailers and health centers nationwide.
In a briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, "We've shipped 100 million N95 masks so far ... available at thousands of locations around the country."
Now that N95 masks are free, where can you get them? And how long do they last? Read more to learn why experts believe N95 masks are superior, where you can get your free masks and how many times you can wear them.
For more on the pandemic, read about the, the on the market and how to get .
Why does the CDC recommend N95 masks?
According to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, N95 masks "offer the highest level of protection" against the spread of COVID-19. Many experts have criticized the CDC for discouraging Americans from using N95 masks early in the pandemic and not recommending them sooner.
While"any mask is better than no mask," N95 respirators can filter out at least 95% of aerosol particulates as small as 0.3 microns. The elastic headband and adjustable metal band over the bridge of the nose on an N95 mask also help create a much tighter seal than cloth masks.
Inspected and approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, N95s are also made from polypropylene, a plastic with an embedded electric charge that attracts foreign particles -- like viral droplets -- and traps them inside the fibers of the mask.
According to an August 2020 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, N95s are the "mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens."
How long can you wear an N95 mask?
According to the CDC, you shouldn't use an N95 mask more than five times total. Any deterioration or fraying of the straps means it's not creating a tight seal and should be thrown out.
Medical experts generally agree that the COVID-19 virus doesn't survive on surfaces for more than three days. Cycling through your N95 masks every three or four days should ensure they're virus-free.
The amount of time a mask is worn is more important than the frequency. Richard Flagan, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology who studies masks and aerosols, told the Associated Press that N95 masks should be limited to two or three days. The CDC recommends that health-care workers use N95 masks a maximum of five times.
Experts have tested methods of cleaning and reusing N95 masks, including exposing them to vaporous hydrogen peroxide or ultraviolet light, but no method has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
A 2020 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine examined boiling masks and leaving them to air dry but the results were not peer-reviewed and have not been endorsed by regulatory bodies.
Where can you get free N95 masks?
CVS, Walgreens, Kroger, Rite Aid, Publix, Walmart and Sam's Club are among the many US retailers that are part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program and that will distribute free N95 masks. Customers will be limited to three masks per person, officials said, to "ensure broad access for all Americans."
Many CVS and Rite-Aid locations have begun offering free masks, and Walgreens has a running list of locations nationwide that are offering free masks, with "signage indicating mask availability" outside the store.
Walmart has indicated that free N95 masks should be available "the second week of February" and that "eventually, all Walmart and Sam's Club locations will have N95 masks."
When do you need to use an N95 mask?
Because of supply-chain issues, the CDC previously recommended N95 masks be reserved for health care workers. With more than 750 million masks in the Strategic National Stockpile's reserves, the agency now says there are enough for them to be worn by anyone who wants to.
The agency clarified that "surgical N95s," a specific type of respirator with additional safeguards, should still be reserved for health care workers.
When should you wear an N95 mask? The CDC recommends using one:
- On public transportation
- In crowded indoor spaces or outdoor spaces where you can't socially distance
- For people required to interact with large groups of people
- For people who are unvaccinated or not up to date with boosters
- For people with increased risk of developing a severe response to COVID-19
- For people taking care of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19
Most N95s masks are designed for adult faces and lungs, with just a handful of manufacturers making KN95s and other high-quality masks suitable for young children.
How much do N95 masks cost?
The demand -- and price -- for N95 masks jumped after the CDC revised its guidance, according to Bloomberg. A 50-pack of Kimberly-Clark N95 masks cost about $24 in early October, but now retails on Amazon for about $57.
N95 masks typically come in packs of 10, 20 or 50. On Project N95, a nonprofit that vets personal protective equipment, the cost of a box of masks worked out to about $2 to $2.50 per mask.
How do you avoid counterfeit masks?
As demand for high-quality masks has surged, so have knockoffs: According to the CDC, 60% of KN95 masks did not meet required standards.
To make sure your N95 respirator isn't counterfeit, look for the NIOSH approval symbol, which should start with the letters "TC," followed by seven digits.
Ignore anything labeled "FDA registered": According to the Food and Drug Administration's website, facilities involved in the production of medical devices are required to register annually, but that doesn't imply they've been approved or authorized.
Look closely at seller ratings and product reviews and be suspicious of new sellers that seem to pop up out of nowhere.
Since KN95 respirators aren't regulated by NIOSH, it's harder to spot a fake. But the FDA still keeps a roster of approved KN95 masks from 2020, when it approved them for use under an Emergency Use Authorization.
The CDC also has a list of non-NIOSH-approved N95s, KN95s, KF94s and other protective masks that have gone through filtration testing, as well as known counterfeits.
The best way to ensure that you're receiving a NIOSH-approved mask, though, is to get one directly from a health care professional or a reputable retailer like CVS or Walgreens.
You can also rely on trusted online resellers like Project N95.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.