Don't get duped into buying a phony mask.

Wearing a face covering correctly and consistently remains one of the most effective ways to prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19. Given the most recent surge in Omicron variant infections in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) not only continues to advise vigilant mask-wearing, but is considering updating its guidelines to suggest people wear even more protective N95 or KN95 masks, rather than cloth ones, a CDC official told the Washington Post. Typically worn in health care settings, N95 and KN95 masks fit more closely to the face than cloth and surgical masks, and filter out up to 95 percent of airborne particles—that is, when they fit properly, meet necessary requirements, and are not counterfeit. 

For the best protection, it's not wise to panic buy just any N95 or KN95 mask online that claims to be the real deal. The CDC has cautioned that 60 percent of imported KN95 masks circulating in the U.S. are counterfeit and do not meet the filtration requirements they claim to meet. 

Both N95 and KN95 respirators meet certain international standards. N95 masks are approved for medical use in the U.S. through rigorous testing by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). KN95 masks are meant to meet the same standards, but are not regulated by a U.S. agency—KN95 is a Chinese particulate standard. "Respirators approved by NIOSH are evaluated by NIOSH against a specific U.S. standard that includes a quality requirement," according to the CDC. "International standards do not often have quality requirements." 

Several KN95 masks sold in the U.S. do meet guidelines similar to those set by NIOSH, but others don't make the cut. Proper KN95 masks are effective, but the less clear regulations and high demand have made it easier for knock-offs to slip through the cracks and make it into consumers' shopping carts, especially on third-party retailers like While wearing a less-than-gold-standard mask is better than no mask at all, it's important to know that you might not be getting the protection you think you're paying for. 

Here are a few smart steps you can take to avoid grabbing counterfeit masks.

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1 Look for the official stamp of approval.

Proper N95 masks will be approved by NIOSH. The manufacturer should be on the CDC's approved N95 respirator list. There should be an approval label on the packaging and an approval number on the mask itself (this approval number can be verified on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL)).

Look for KN95 masks that meet requirements similar to NIOSH requirements. Back when N95s were scarce, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization for non-NIOSH-approved KN95 masks for health care personnel. Masks that passed the FDA's standards for authorization underwent testing by an accredited lab. While the FDA has since revoked the EUA, its list of previously authorized KN95 manufacturers is still a helpful buying guide and a good way to cross-check products. 

2 Check the counterfeit list.

If the masks you're eyeing appear on the CDC list of counterfeit respirators or its list of non-approved equipment, you have your answer. These masks have not met the NIOSH regulatory requirements for respiratory protection.

3 Watch for red flags.

Keep an eye out for the CDC's list of red flags that could signal fake N95 face masks.

  • If there are no markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator
  • If there is no NIOSH TC approval number (TC-XXX-XXXX format) on the filtering facepiece respirator or headband
  • If you see no NIOSH markings ("NIOSH" should be stamped somewhere on it)
  • If NIOSH is not spelled correctly 
  • If there are decorative details like fabric, sequins, or other add-ons
  • If there are claims that it's approved for children. (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children)
  • If the filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands (N95s should feature elastic straps that go all the way around the head, which ensure a snug fit that's a crucial part of NIOSH's N95 testing process)

Additionally, if a KN95 mask claims to be approved by the CDC, it's fake: "CDC, through NIOSH, does not approve KN95 masks or any other respiratory protective device certified to international standards," the agency states.

4 Check product reviews.

You can find a lot of iffy masks on sites like Amazon. Despite the marketplace's fraud detection efforts, many questionable sellers find workarounds to dupe shoppers. One obvious way to check a product's quality is by scrolling down to the reviews. Unsatisfied customers may leave reviews saying what they bought was counterfeit. That said, be wary if a product has five stars and rave reviews across the board—this could indicate fake or promotional reviews that aren't trustworthy.

And remember, if you don't have, or can't find, a N95 or KN95—or already bought a pack that looks questionable—don't panic. The lookalikes you have, a cloth, or a surgical face covering is OK and far better than going maskless.

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