Our wellness advice is expert-vetted. Our top picks are based on our editors’ independent research, analysis, and hands-on testing. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission.Reviews ethics statement
Kim Wong-Shing loves demystifying the world of wellness to make it accessible to any reader. She's also passionate about exploring the intersections of health, history and culture. Prior to joining CNET, she contributed stories to Glamour, MindBodyGreen, Greatist and other publications.
ExpertiseNutrition, personal care, mental health, LGBTQ+ healthCredentials
All face masks aren't equal. There's a wide spectrum of protection available, from medical-grade respirators to handmade cloth face coverings. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance in January 2022 accordingly, clarifying that "some types of masks and respirators provide more protection to the wearer than others." It's hard to provide a blanket mask recommendation for every single person in the US, since everyone has different resources and needs. The CDC simply recommends wearing "most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently."
Respirators are among the most protective masks available, and there are three common types: N95, KN95 and KF94. This guide compares the three to help you make smart mask-buying and mask-wearing decisions.
Who should wear one: Anyone who wants to maximize protection and has access to one. N95s labeled "surgical" should be reserved for health care workers.
N95 masks have been popular since the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. These masks are designed to create an extremely tight seal around the nose and mouth, thanks to elastic headbands and an adjustable metal band over the nose. That's part of what makes them so effective (health care workers are individually fitted for their N95 respirators).
The other thing that makes N95s effective? They filter 95% of particles as small as 0.3 microns in size, hence the 95 in the name. (Although SARS-CoV-2 virus particles are about 0.1 microns in size by themselves, remember that virus particles are usually attached to something bigger, like the respiratory droplets generated when talking.)
N95s undergo the rigorous inspection and certification set forth by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Those that are intended to be used in medical settings must also be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for that purpose. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association calls N95s the "mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens."
N95s are not in short supply like they were in the early days of the pandemic, so they're available for the general public to use. There is, however, a difference between standard N95s and those specifically labeled "surgical." The latter should still be prioritized for health care workers, the CDC says, while the former can be used by anyone.
Who should wear one:Anyone who wants to maximize protection.
KN95 masks are considered the Chinese equivalent of N95 masks. They feature a tentlike shape that creates a little pocket of air between your nose and the fabric, which makes them appealing to many people: They feel somewhat easier to breathe through, less obstructive and stifling than N95s.
However, because KN95 masks aren't overseen by the mask-regulating body in the US, NIOSH (they're regulated by the Chinese government instead), it can be trickier to find reliable brands here. Amid high demand for respirators, many KN95s on the market are now fraudulent or counterfeit models -- roughly 60% of KN95s are fakes that do not meet NIOSH standards, according to the CDC.
Who should wear one:Anyone who wants to maximize protection.
KF94 masks have grown in popularity since the start of the pandemic. The "KF" stands for "Korean filter" and the 94 refers to the masks' filtration efficacy. According to the South Korean government's standards, these masks filter 94% of particles down to 0.3 microns in size.
KF94s offer an alternative fit to KN95s or N95s. They feature ear loops, an adjustable nose bridge and side flaps to create a tight fit. For some people, they're more comfortable and easier to wear than the alternatives -- unlike N95s in the US, KF94s are often worn by regular citizens in Korea.
In a very small August 2020 study (only seven people), researchers found KF94 masks to be just as effective at filtering SARS-CoV-2 as N95 masks. Unlike KN95s, KF94 masks were not granted EUA from the FDA. Still, like KN95s, KF94s are a steep upgrade from cloth or surgical masks.
You can help ensure that you're getting the real deal by shopping brands that are manufactured in Korea, where the KF94 label is strictly regulated. Some KF94s are made in China, but these may be more likely to be counterfeits.
Avoiding counterfeit masks
Fraudulent face masks have become a major problem on Amazon and other large online retailers. Manufacturers claim to be selling N95s, KN95s or KF94s, when in reality the masks they sell are not held to the same standards as masks that have undergone inspection by the US, Chinese or Korean governments. Sometimes, sellers even put an approved brand's name on a counterfeit product, making it even harder to tell the difference.
The CDC has a running list of non-NIOSH-approved N95s, KN95s, KF94s and other protective masks that have gone through filtration testing. The list also includes known counterfeits.
It's near-impossible to spot counterfeit masks, especially when shopping online, but you can take a few steps to ensure that you're getting the best protection possible:
Shop from a trusted reseller like Project N95, a nonprofit that vets personal protective equipment
Buy from reputable retailers, such as CVS or Walgreens, which have vetting processes for wholesale products
Look closely at seller ratings and product reviews
Be wary of new sellers that seem to pop up out of nowhere
Double-mask if you're unsure of the quality of your masks
CNET also has a running list of the best face masks, including N95s, KN95s, KF94s and surgical masks.
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.