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There are no shortage of mask options out there when it comes to protecting yourself against the spread of the coronavirus, but few masks offer the tight fit and germ-blocking benefits of a KN95 mask. Once used exclusively for construction jobs, manufacturing, and other environments where workers could potentially be exposed to dust and small particles, the best KN95 masks have now been repurposed for use in the fight against Covid-19.
The sustainable grocery, wellness and home accessories website, Public Goods, is best known for their personal care and household products, but they quickly pivoted to launch KN95 masks in May, with a spokesperson saying the site saw an opening “to satisfy a need for safe masks at an affordable price.” According to the rep, Public Goods’ KN95 masks launched in early May and had a 30% increase in sales the following month. They’ve continued to sell well since, and are now sold as part of the site’s popular “safety kit,” which includes ten KN95 masks and hand sanitizer.
While these masks won’t completely eradicate the coronavirus, KN95 masks can help slow the spread of airborne particles to effectively decrease your chances of infection or transmission. There are a number of FDA-approved KN95 masks that the agency has sanctioned for public use, with officials citing many of the same benefits as the more commonly-cited N95 masks. But how do they work and just how effective are they, compared to other masks in the market?
How Are KN95 Masks Different From N95 Masks?
According to Shaz Amin, founder of Honest PPE Supply, KN95 masks can be just as effective as — if not more effective — than N95 masks. “The KN95 is practically equivalent to N95 in every aspect,” he says. “The main difference is where it’s manufactured, which is in China. Still,” he adds, “Many N95 masks are also made in parts of China and Asia so the notion that all N95 masks are U.S.-created is inaccurate as well.”
“One of the most crucial characteristics of the KN95 is its filtration percentage,” explains Dan Bhutta, owner of PPE accessories site DMB Supply. “The best masks must keep out a large portion of harmful substances [and] the KN95 and N95 masks have a 95% filtration percentage (hence the “95” in the names).”
As Bhutta explains, both the KN95 and N95 masks must maintain a constant flow rate of 85 liters/min, which measures the breathability and inhalation airflow of a mask. Both masks must also have penetration levels that are properly aligned through the filter media (material) they use. The material must be able to filter out particles of a minimum of 0.3 microns.
Amin says many of the KN95 masks from “premium” (read: vetted and authorized) factories may actually show a higher filtration level than some well-known N95 brands. “Customers seem to believe that the N95 is superior at blocking airborne particles, but the KN95 is just as good, if not better,” he says. “Multiple tests show that our masks range in the 97-99% levels of filtration,” he claims, “far exceeding the required 95% to be labeled an KN95 or N95” (Amin cites this Caltech study and presented a number of documents to Rolling Stone that appear to back up his claims).
How Do KN95 Masks Work?
The best KN95 masks are worn around the mouth and form a tight seal with a nose clip and multiple levels of material, to help filter out potentially dangerous particles and droplets in the air. This can include everything from naturally airborne dust and debris, to spittle that comes from someone coughing, sneezing or talking.
One advantage KN95 masks have over traditional 3-ply masks or cloth coverings is their tight seal. KN95 are better than cloth masks or surgical masks because they provide a tighter, more secure fit around the nose and mouth. “You can ensure a proper fit by pressing down on the metal nose strip,” Bhutta says. “This creates a seal around the wearer’s face, preventing leakage.”
So if KN95 masks are just as good as N95 masks, why haven’t they been more widely discussed or promoted? N95 masks have been selling out online (you can still find 3M N95 masks available for sale here) but KN95 masks remain available for purchase. According to Bhutta, it seems to boil down to “fake news.”
Are KN95 Masks Effective?
“Some people believe that since KN95 masks come from China, they may be more risky,” suggests Bhutta, though he’s quick to add, “This is not the case. KN95 masks made in FDA registered facilities follow strict protocols during manufacturing, and that is why they are available for sale here in the U.S. in the first place,” he says.
Amin agrees. Though Honest PPE Supply has a number of FDA-registered KN95 masks available, “The draw back has been that there is so much false information out there about these masks,” he says. Amin points to the “flood of low-quality masks from China” that were originally being sold online, pointing out that they “didn’t help with the perception of KN95 masks.” The FDA quickly removed a number of brands from their list of vetted manufacturers in May, saying the masks “failed to meet a minimum particulate filtration efficiency of 95% in National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health testing.”
The KN95 masks from both Honest PPE Supply and DMB supply appear on the list of FDA-approved KN95 masks, and both founders say their companies go through a careful assessment process to only source masks from legitimate, vetted manufacturers. “When you buy KN95 masks from a vetted, quality source they end up being better alternatives at a more affordable price,” Amin says, adding that, “We have many customers reaching out to us every single hour and one of the things that I’ve been very impressed with is the amount of research they’ve done [before purchasing a mask].”