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Free N95 Masks: Where to Get Them and How to Wear Them

With the BA.5 omicron variant of COVID-19 on the rise, more people are masking up again.

Man wearing N95 respirator
Free N95 masks are still available nationwide.
Getty Images
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

The BA.5 subvariant of omicron makes up 80% of current COVID-19 cases, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coupled with the closely related BA.4, that percentage jumps to nearly 95% of infections.

The newer strains are highly contagious, resulting in a rising wave of infections, including US President Joe Biden and Sens. Joe Manchin and Lisa Murkowski. There are over 35,000 hospitalizations in the US alone right now, with admission rates in some states rising by up to 90% from two weeks ago.

To protect their loved ones, their neighbors and themselves, more Americans are returning to masking up. N95 masks are recognized as providing the best protection from COVID-19. At the beginning of the year, the Biden administration shipped an initial 400 million N95 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile, and the masks are still available for free at many pharmacies, retailers and health centers nationwide. 

Where can you get N95 masks? Read on to find out. For more on the COVID-19 pandemic, learn the difference between N95, KN95 and KF94 masks, whether home COVID tests work on the new subvariants, and how to order 16 free tests.

Why does the CDC recommend N95 masks?

According to 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," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, 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.

Read on: 8 COVID-19 Face Mask Myths, Debunked

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.

N95s are the "mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens," according to an August 2020 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

US-RETAIL-STORE

CVS is one of several pharmacy chains distributing free N95 masks.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Walgreens has a running list of locations nationwide that are offering free masks, with "signage indicating mask availability" outside the store. 

The CDC website lets you enter your ZIP code to find a location near you where you can get free masks.

How much do N95 masks cost?

The demand for N95 masks jumped after the CDC revised its guidance, according to Bloomberg, leading to a predictable price hike. A 50-pack of Kimberly-Clark N95 masks used to cost about $24 in early October 2021, but now retails on Amazon for about $58.

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 works out to about $2 to $2.50 per mask.

Read moreThe best face masks to avoid spreading COVID-19

How do you put on an N95 mask?

According to the CDC, an N95 mask must form a tight seal around your face to work properly.

When putting on your N95, make sure your hands are dry and clean and always inspect the mask for tears, dirt, dampness or other damage.

Hold it in your hand with your fingertips on the nose bridge. Place the bottom of the mask under your chin and the nose bar over your nose. Pull the top strap over your head, securing it near the crown. Then, pull the bottom strap over until it's around the back of your neck, below your ears.

Make sure the elastic straps are laying flat and haven't crisscrossed. 

n95-illustration-put-on-the-n95-3

For a secure fit, pull the top strap of your N95 over your head and rest it on the crown. The bottom strap should go around the back of your neck, below your ears.

CDC

To mold the nose bridge to your nose, place your fingertips on each side and press down. 

You'll want to check for gaps every time you put on an N95 mask. If you're wearing it correctly, your breath should pass through the mask and not around its edges. If your mask is too big, too small, or not put on correctly, it can cause gaps between your face and the edge of the mask.

According to the CDC, jewelry, glasses and facial hair can also interfere with proper coverage. 

To make sure the mask is snug, gently place your hands over it, covering as much of it as possible, and breathe out. If you feel air leaking out the sides, or if you are wearing glasses and they fog up, there is a gap.

You may need to try a different size or style to get a good tight seal. But according to the CDC, "Even if you cannot get the N95 sealed against your face, it will provide protection that is likely better than a cloth mask." 

After removing your N95, wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.

If you have a heart condition or breathing problems, talk to your doctor before using an N95. In addition, if you have a latex allergy, consult the manufacturer's website to make sure the one you have is safe to use.

How many times 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. 

N95 mask in hand

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, N95 masks are the "mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens."

CNET

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.

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 to 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.