Not all masks are created equal.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, Americans have become well acquainted with public health advisories that encourage us to wash our hands, practice social distancing and wear a mask in public.
While a simple, reusable cotton mask offers some protection from the aerosolized particles that can cause a COVID-19 infection if inhaled, for the highest level of protection, many Americans are looking to acquire N95 respirators.
These specially designed and tested medical devices filter the air of nearly all particles and offer the most protection. They’ve long been considered the gold standard in medical circles, and during this pandemic, they’ve become highly sought-after goods.
Sky-high demand leads to counterfeits.
Demand for N95 respirators skyrocketed in spring of 2020.
Jennifer Ehrlich, a spokesperson for St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M — the largest manufacturer of N95 respirators in the U.S. — says “in the U.S. alone, we are now producing more than 95 million N95 respirators a month, quadrupling production since pre-pandemic levels. We’re on track to manufacture 2.5 billion N95s globally, quadrupling production from pre-pandemic levels.”
However, there’s still more demand than manufacturers like 3M can meet. This has led to a rising tide of counterfeit N95 respirators that have been hitting the market in recent months.
“It’s just crazy,” says David Baillargeon, co-founder of United States Mask, LLC, which manufactures NIOSH-approved N95 respirators in Arlington, Texas. (NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Healthy, and it’s part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Desperation for these N95 respirators has created a robust marketplace for unscrupulous parties looking to make a quick buck with no regard for human health and safety. And it’s worked.
“Sight unseen, cities and governments were spending boatloads of money on buying respirators from so-and-so’s uncle in Asia who has a connection,” Baillargeon says. “The deals that were happening, and all the scams and how many people have gotten ripped off — I think everybody who’s been buying N95s has a story to tell about being scammed at some point.”
Some companies step up.
Baillargeon and his co-founder John Bielamowicz launched United States Mask in March 2020 to address this need they saw. They quickly learned that it takes a lot of effort to make an authentic N95 mask.
“It’s very expensive and time-consuming to get certified by NIOSH,” he says. The pair had to build their own production equipment to stringent standards and work with NIOSH to earn their coveted approval seal.
It took about eight months to tick all the appropriate boxes to ensure that the masks they were producing were up to snuff. “It’s very difficult to get approved, but that’s also a good thing because (NIOSH) has very rigorous quality control and standards that you need to meet,” he says. The company now sells authentic N95 masks direct to consumers.
Other medical equipment companies have similarly pivoted to answer the call for authentic N95 masks, says Luis Arguello, Jr., vice president of DemeTECH, a medical device manufacturer in Miami. DemeTECH has been around since the early 1990s and is well known for making a variety of devices used in surgery such as sutures.
But in spring 2020, when elective surgeries ground to a halt around the world, the company pivoted to manufacturing N95 masks.
“We had never made a mask before March of 2020. But we’ve made much more complicated devices,” Arguello says. The company worked with Oak Ridge National Laboratories, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, and Dr. Peter Tsai, a materials scientist and the original inventor of the N95, to help DemeTECH develop “the best filter that we could design.”
It took DemeTECH about four months to get up and running in making and selling NIOSH-approved N95 respirators. They are also selling authentic N95 masks direct to consumers.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing lists other American companies that are manufacturing and selling authentic N95 masks.
7 signs of a fake N95:
While some companies have worked very hard to provide authentic N95 respirators to hospitals and individual consumers, others have taken shortcuts. And it’s not always obvious which is which, Baillargeon says. “It’s extremely hard to tell some of these fakes.”
While it can be difficult to spot a fake, there are a few signs that your N95 respirator might not be what it says it is just by looking at it. Read on to spot the seven signs of a fake N95 mask.
1. It has ear loops instead of head straps.
One of the most obvious and common elements of a fake N95 mask is the presence of ear loops. A real N95 respirator never has ear loops, but rather features two straps that go around the back of the head to hold the mask firmly in place.
“The headband is essential for creating a tighter fit around your face,” Arguello says.
Ear loops are “a telltale sign that it’s a fake,” Baillargeon says. “That’s the first thing that NIOSH requires.”
2. It lacks a TC number.
“All NISOH-approved respirators have a unique identifying approval number called a ‘TC’ number that will have a format of ’84A-XXXX’ that can be validated on the CDC NIOSH Certified Equipment List,” says Tim Zeh, director of safety operations and services with Thermo Fisher Scientific, a science and technology company based in Waltham, Massachusetts.
However, “China has some completely unethical business practices, and they’re falsifying and counterfeiting these number,” Arguello says. When compared side by side, a fake and a real mask might look exactly the same and even carry “the same exact NIOSH number on it, but it might be a counterfeit,” Arguello says.
While some companies that are manufacturing fake N95 masks go to the trouble of making up a TC number, others leave them off all together, hoping unwitting consumers won’t realize the omission.
3. The NIOSH logo is missing or spelled wrong.
Dr. Julita Mir, an infectious disease physician and chief medical officer of Community Care Cooperative (C3) in Boston, says that respirators made by manufacturers who have done the appropriate testing and secured the right approvals show that work by stamping each mask with the NIOSH logo. Fraudulent masks, particularly those made overseas, may contain misspellings or a logo that doesn’t look right.
4. There are no markings at all.
A completely blank mask that has the same shape as an N95 is also a fake. Authentic N95s will always have the TC number and a NIOSH imprint on it. They also typically bear some branding imprint from the manufacturer. Look for a name you recognize and trust. If the whole mask is blank, don’t buy it.
5. It has decorations or includes decorative fabrics.
Mask fashion has become a booming pandemic business. And that’s all well and good when you’re talking about a homemade mask that’s there to provide some extra protection when you go to the grocery store.
But it’s not so good when it comes to protecting someone in a high-risk environment like a hospital. Authentic N95 respirators are highly engineered and rigorously tested medical devices — they’re not clothing, and they’re not fashionable. Decorations or decorative fabrics are a big red flag that the mask is not an authentic N95.
6. It’s marketed as ‘approved for children.’
NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children, so packaging that makes this claim is a sure sign that the masks inside are not authentic NIOSH-approved N95 respirators.
7. It doesn’t make a proper seal.
N95 respirators are a highly-designed piece of medical equipment intended to protect the wearer from airborne pathogens and particles that could be inhaled and lead to illness or injury. Getting that protection can be uncomfortable.
Ehrlich explains that 3M filtering facepiece respirators, such as N95s, are “tight-fitting respirators that contain advanced filter material and are designed to form a seal with the wearer’s face, so inhaled air passes through the filter,” instead of going around the edges.
In short, the mask won’t be particularly comfortable if you’re using it correctly and it’s an authentic mask. “We have some consumers that say, ‘the mask digs into my face.'” Arguello says. But, “that’s how you create a tight seal so that nothing gets in. N95s are not traditionally very comfortable, and they’re supposed to be a bit uncomfortable to make that seal on your face.”
Using a fake mask can increase risk.
If your mask is a counterfeit, “you likely will not get the level of protection that you may be anticipating,” Zeh says.
From cloth masks to N95 masks, there’s a broad spectrum of protection available when it comes to different face masks. And this can lead you to have a false sense of security, Mir says. “If they knew their mask was not optimal and approved, an individual would likely modify their behavior. Instead, people wearing these fraudulent masks are unknowingly creating risk for themselves and others around them.”
KN95 masks are also sometimes used in place of N95s, but they aren’t the same. KN95 masks are typically made in China and often aren’t held to the same rigid production standards as N95 masks. The CDC estimates that at least 60% of KN95 masks in the United States are counterfeit. The CDC doesn’t offer a list of ways to spot a fake KN95, but it’s probably best to assume that most KN95 respirators aren’t offering the same level of protection as a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator.
What should I do if I have a counterfeit mask?
Zeh says you should discontinue use of the mask if you discover that it’s a fake. “If it’s made to look like one of the popular brands on the market, contact that manufacturer that’s being counterfeited, as well as the distributor you may have purchased it from with the details so it can be logged and pursued by the respective legal arms of those entities to resolve. If it’s not a common, recognized market brand, you could also contact NIOSH, as they continually update the fraudulent respirator webpage.”
Mir recommends reporting fraud through 3M‘s website or the Federal Trade Commission. You can also check the CDC’s website for specific examples of fraudulent masks and masks being erroneously marketed as NIOSH-approved.
Where to get authentic N95 masks.
Mir notes that “in the beginning of the pandemic, N95 masks were scarce, leaving many health care and essential workers without the proper personal protective equipment. Because N95 masks have been in short supply, the CDC has said they should be reserved for health care providers.”
Indeed, those who are on the front lines battling this virus need the most protection. If you’re not among them, you may not need that same level of security. Save those limited supplies for those in the most need.
However, as companies have pivoted to manufacture more masks in recent months and made more PPE available to anyone who needs or wants these items, some manufacturers have opened direct-to-consumer shops on their websites or begun distributing authentic N95 masks via third-party vendors.
If you’re shopping for N95 masks, Zeh says that “reputable manufacturers and distributors” are typically best positioned to help you “make an informed decision for whatever particular applications you or your organization are concerned with.”
Arguello also encourages you to buy from an established company “that’s not new to manufacturing medical devices,” rather than a fly-by-night operation that has no track record. And he recommends buying “direct from the manufacturer where you can” to cut out the middle man and ensure that the mask you’re purchasing is coming from the manufacturer.
Mir adds that buying from local medical suppliers is one option. However, she notes that “online shopping is a bit more challenging because fraudulent companies are savvy at attracting the buyer and adept at misleading.”
When buying from an online outlet like Amazon or another aggregate site, first Google the name of the company that’s providing the mask to see if they actually exist.
No matter which site you purchase from, “be sure to pay by credit card which offers you a protection” against fraud, as recommended by the FTC.
Lastly, the CDC hosts a list of approved providers of N95 respirators. Check that list to ensure the company you’re dealing with has the appropriate approvals to sell the products they’re offering.
Double up on cloth masks for extra protection.
If you’re unable to get your hands on an authentic N95 mask, you can get still get a good level of protection by wearing a reusable cloth mask, which is recommended for the general public any time you’re in public or in close proximity to someone not from your household.
The CDC recommends selecting masks that:
— Have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric.
— Completely cover your nose and mouth.
— Fit snugly against the sides of your face and don’t have gaps.
— Have a nose wire to prevent air leakage from the top of the mask.
When wearing a cloth mask, it’s best to “ensure that there are two layers of protection and the mask is made of tightly woven fabric,” Mir says.
Bandanas and other single-layer or loose-knit fabrics are not as protective and could leave you more vulnerable than you realize. You can also wear two masks on top of each other for an added level of protection.
7 signs your N95 mask is a fake:
— It has ear loops instead of head straps.
— It lacks a TC number.
— The NIOSH logo is missing or spelled wrong.
— There are no markings at all.
— It has decorations or includes decorative fabrics.
— It’s marketed as “approved for children.”
— It doesn’t make a proper seal.
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