Peloton Tread recall House of the Dragon photos Trump's Facebook ban reaffirmed The Martian's Andy Weir writes new thriller Last-minute Mother's Day gifts Stimulus check updates

N95 vs. KN95 vs. KF94 masks: What's the difference and which should you use?

Learn which type of mask best prevents the spread of COVID-19.

Listen
- 04:55
005-double-mask-recommendations-new-mandate-n95-kn95-cloth-medical-masks-face

Learn the difference between N95, KN95 and KF94 masks. The one pictured here is a KN95.

Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

It's a year later and we're all wearing face masks, something most of us never imagined last February. Health experts even recommend wearing two masks at once now. As more COVID-19 variants appear, wearing a high-quality face mask is more important than ever.

We already know that all face masks aren't equal, and there's a difference between medical-grade respirators and cloth face coverings. Now as the pandemic drags on, professional-grade masks are gaining attention again, especially because they can filter out particles better than a cloth mask. This guide compares N95 masks, KN95 masks and KF94 masks -- three popular and protective types of mask -- to help you make smart mask-buying and mask-wearing decisions

N95 masks

gettyimages-1210994669

An N95 mask.

Getty Images

N95 masks have been popular since the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. These masks give an extremely tight fit thanks to elastic headbands and an adjustable metal seal over the nose, which keeps the mask close to your skin. 

They filter 95% of particles as small as 0.3 microns in size. (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, and only after being certified are they approved as medical-grade masks. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association calls N95s the "mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens."

Unfortunately, these masks have been in short supply for nearly a year now because they are part of the personal protective equipment health care workers need when treating patients with COVID-19. As such, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that N95s be reserved for health care workers only, not for the general public. 

KN95 masks

004-double-mask-recommendations-new-mandate-n95-kn95-cloth-medical-masks-face

A KN95 mask.

Sarah Tew/CNET
  • Percentage of aerosol particulates filtered: 95% (but see below)
  • NIOSH-approved: No
  • Who should wear one: Anyone can wear these masks in low- to moderate-risk environments, such as going to the grocery store or an outdoor gathering. 

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 easier to breathe through, less obstructive and stifling. 

However, because KN95 masks aren't overseen by the mask-regulating body in the US, NIOSH, they aren't considered as effective as N95 masks. Manufacturers of KN95s can seek emergency use authorization from the FDA for use in health care settings. In fact, the FDA has granted EUA to several KN95 masks already.

In September 2020, a report from the Emergency Care Research Institute raised concerns over fraudulent KN95 masks. According to the report, up to 70% of KN95 masks imported from China don't meet the same filtration efficacy as N95 masks. ECRI issued an alert because many hospitals were ordering these masks, which could pose contamination risks in medical centers where patients are being treated for COVID-19.

Outside of health care and high-risk settings, this isn't necessarily a big deal. The general public can benefit from wearing KN95 masks. Even KN95 masks that don't meet NIOSH standards for filtration efficacy are probably still more protective than basic surgical masks and cloth face masks made of cotton, nylon or another nonmedical fabric. 

KF94 masks

kf94-mask

A KF94 mask.

KN FLAX/Getty Images
  • Percentage of aerosol particulates filtered: 94%
  • NIOSH-approved: No 
  • Who should wear one: Anyone can wear these masks in low- to moderate-risk environments, such as going to the grocery store or an outdoor gathering. 

KF94 masks are now growing in popularity. 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. They feature ear loops, an adjustable nose bridge and side flaps to create a tight fit. 

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. However, unlike KN95s that meet the Chinese government's standards of certification, KF94 masks have not yet been granted EUA from the FDA for use in health care settings.

Still, like KN95s, KF94s are a steep upgrade from the single-ply cotton face cover you're probably walking around with.

Avoiding counterfeit masks 

Fraudulent face masks have become a 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. The CDC has a running list of non-NIOSH-approved 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: 

  • 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 
  • Check the product listing and URL to make sure the names match 
  • Double-mask if you're unsure of the quality of your masks

Other COVID-19 frauds and scams include price gouging, fake reports about the virus and vaccine-related scams and myths.

Now playing: Watch this: When will I get my COVID-19 vaccine?
6:55

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.