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Those KN95 masks you just bought might not meet testing standards

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A discarded face mask is seen on the ground. It can be difficult for consumers without specialized testing equipment to verify the quality of masks they purchase. (Photo by DAVID GANNON/AFP via Getty Images)

A discarded face mask is seen on the ground. It can be difficult for consumers without specialized testing equipment to verify the quality of masks they purchase. David Gannon/ Getty Images

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention upgraded its guidance on face masks last week, encouraging people to use National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health-approved N95 respirators or imported KN95 respirators, which provide a higher level of protection than cloth or surgical masks.  

Consumers looking to upgrade are faced with a raft of options when shopping online — including products of questionable quality.

“The challenge with the mask marketplace right now is that it’s not really clear about what are really high-performing masks, which masks don’t meet the standard, and which ones are just straight-up fakes,” said Aaron Collins, a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science who has tested hundreds of masks purchased online in his homemade laboratory. “It’s hard to tell just by looking at a mask,” Collins said. 

The CDC has published a list of counterfeit respirators and says that about 60% of KN95 masks it evaluated in 2020 and 2021 did not meet the standards they were intended to meet. 

Collins, a self-professed “mask nerd” who publishes mask testing data and resources on his YouTube channel and Twitter feed, says there are ways to avoid buying low-quality products.

He took “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal on an online shopping trip to explain what to watch out for when purchasing masks. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Imported products can be of a high quality

Kai Ryssdal: How am I supposed to know? I’m just the guy trying to wear a mask and be safe and keep everybody else safe.

Aaron Collins: I think this is the million-dollar question that everyone’s trying to answer. In general, there are some things we can look for. So, when we talk about N95, KN95, KF94 — KN95 is kind of unique in this space in that it’s just a Chinese test standard. There’s not really any regulatory oversight to them.

Ryssdal: Let me just say that that’s not heartening, that it’s just the Chinese test standard, because of what we know about Chinese standards. 

Collins: Well, that’s a good point, but they do have a test, and they do have to use certain labs. So oftentimes a KN95 may actually have met the test standard, but they only have to submit 20 pieces, and then the next 10,000, was there any quality checks? There are regulated masks like KN94 from South Korea and our NIOSH N95 standards. Those are regulated masks, meaning not only do you have to meet these test standards, but your factory also has to meet all these quality and process checks along the way to make sure you’re making a consistent product.

Use caution when buying masks online 

Ryssdal: I’m looking at my KN95 pretty closely now, and it doesn’t say “approved by” or “standardized tested by.” I mean, it just says KN95 on the side. 

Collins: And that’s kind of the problem. The test standard is kind of specific as to the labeling of the mask. They do require that you say KN95, so you’ve met that first one, but the next check is that they require you to label it with a test standard, and that standard is GB 2626-2019. You expect to see both of those things stamped onto the mask, but you’re only seeing one of them. So, right away, we know that that mask didn’t actually comply to the [current] KN95 standard as it’s written.

Kai Ryssdal’s “KN95” face mask does not have a number stamped on the side, a sign that it might not meet the advertised filtration standard.

Ryssdal: Oh, my goodness. We’ve got a cabinet full of them at home. All right, so look. So let’s say I decide to go mask shopping, and I go to everybody’s favorite e-commerce site. Do I type in KN95? N95? Mask? What do I do?

Collins: Let’s do “KN95.” Right? That’s the most ubiquitous search term right now.

Ryssdal: And there’s a zillion of them.

Collins: Yeah, and they all look very similar, right. They’re called bi-folds, some are black, some are white. Yeah, it seems like a lot of these Amazon-only brands, their branding is what effectively is five random letters, so you really don’t have a way to chase down, is it the company that actually made it? Or are they just rebranding someone else’s mask?

Rysdsal: What about those ones that are like like almost trifold? Right? I think those are the Korean KF94s, right?

Collins: Yeah, KF94, those are some of my favorite masks. We can search that on Amazon too. 

Ryssdal: Let me do that.

Collins: So if you just search KF94, those are those boat-shaped [masks]. One of the requirements of KF94 is that they have to have a physical presence or be manufactured in South Korea. If we look at some of these, and maybe we’ll find one if we pick, you know, some random one, like there’s this 50-piece for $20, that’s that seems like a really great deal. If we look on the right side of the screen, who is it sold by?

Ryssdal: Oh, the business address is in China.

Collins: Yeah. So isn’t that interesting. Why would they make it in South Korea, ship it to China, then ship to you? I don’t think this is a real mask.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you this. Here I am making a good-faith effort, and it’s not like I’m getting swindled, right? Because I’m getting something that, in theory, provides some degree of protection. But am I really protected?

Collins: This is the real challenge with the Amazon marketplace and just masks in general right now. As a consumer, you can buy a mask and look at it. It might look real, but the only way to actually know is to use really specialty scientific equipment to measure that. Fake masks can range from something that’s not terrible all the way to something that’s like cloth mask. And that’s the problem. You don’t know what you’re going to get when you buy the mask.

Where to find rigorously vetted masks

Ryssdal: So look, rather than dumping all over Amazon, if I’m a concerned mask consumer, is there a good place for me to go to not get swindled on my masks?

Collins: Yeah, there are some really good websites out there. Project N95 is a nonprofit that was set up originally to help distribute PPE to healthcare workers, and they’ve expanded to try to kind of emulate the Amazon marketplace where you’ll see a lot of different masks from different suppliers. The only challenge is that [supply] is very tight right now.

Ryssdal: We should be clear, you’re not getting a kickback from these guys. This is not a sponsored endorsement on your part, right?  

Collins: Correct. I have no financial obligation to any mask manufacturer or vendor. I’ve never taken any payment. I’ve done all of this out of my own pocket, just simply to try to help people.

Amazon provided the following statement to Marketplace:

“For face masks marketed as N95 and KN95, we have implemented a rigorous seller vetting and product review process to ensure compliance with applicable laws, regulations and Amazon policies. Before listing N95 and KN95 masks in our store, we verify that they are sourced from a trusted manufacturer by inspecting supplier invoices to trace inventory, reviewing packaging and product descriptions, and comparing against the CDC’s counterfeit mask list. We continually source inventory from approved sellers to meet the needs of customers, and currently offer a large assortment of N95 and KN95 masks.”

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