You can get free N95 masks next week – here’s where to find them

With the CDC recommend now highly protective N95 masks to combat the surge in omicron variant cases of Covid-19, and news of President Biden supplying 400 million N95 masks to pharmacies and community health centers in the coming weeks, you might be wondering be how to get them – especially for free.

These masks are not always easy to find. While supplies of N95 – which filter at least 95% of air particles – have become less scarce for healthcare workers, it can still be difficult to find the masks in stores or in stock when trying to buy them online.

The CDC does not explicitly recommend N95s, other than suggesting that you wear the “most protective mask possible that fits you well and that you will wear consistently.” However, in his updated tips it says N95s offer the “highest level of protection,” followed by similar respirator masks like the KN95 and KF94 or tight-fitting disposable surgical masks, which the CDC says are better than cloth masks, which offer the “less protection”.

However, counterfeit respirators are commonplace. The CDC says that 60% of KN95 respirators – the Chinese version of the N95 – did not meet National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) inspection requirements. For this reason, you’ll want to be careful where you buy masks and know which ones to buy.

Where to find legit N95 masks

The best way to make sure you’re getting NIOSH-approved masks is to get one directly from a healthcare professional. Next week, the Biden administration will begin distributing three free N95 masks to every person who visits a community health center, as well as participating pharmacies and retailers like CVS, Costco and Walmart.

You can find a health center near you here and see which pharmacies and retailers participate in this program in your state here. However, you may want to call ahead for availability, as the program won’t be “fully operational until early February,” according to a White House official.

You can also choose to buy masks. For the best protection, you’ll want to stick with NIOSH approved N95 and limit your in-store or online purchases to trusted retailers who work directly with mask makers, like SVC Where Home depositor directly from the mask makers’ websites, like 3M Where Honeywell.

You can also search for exclusive distributors for trusted manufacturers, like Good Faith Masks, Project N95 Where Long before. If you’re shopping on a site that tends to have a lot of different vendors, like Amazon, stick to buying from verified manufacturers.

Know your N95 from your KN95 and KF94

Some people prefer variations of respirator masks like the KN95 and KF94 because they have ear loops instead of headbands and are often easier for children to adjust. However, this lack of fit can make them less effective than N95s, although they are still much more effective than cloth masks.

Although the CDC has clarified that the KN95s and KF94s are highly effective, these masks are made to standards specific to China and South Korea, respectively, rather than US standards. This means that there is no CDC-approved list of manufacturers for these types of masks.

In this case, it is more difficult to know which KN95 and KF94 are counterfeits. Your best bet when buying is to stick to big name retailers and known and trusted suppliers, like 3M. CNBC Select has a list of some of the best KN95 masks herejust like the N95 project here. Note that these masks are popular, so stocks may be limited or out of stock.

Prices for N95, KN95, and KF94 masks are roughly the same, typically ranging between $1 and $2 per mask, and they are typically sold in packs of 10, 20, 30, or 50 masks. However, an N95 mask is more likely to be sold for $2 or more. KN95 and KF94 masks are easier to find at a cheaper price, closer to $1 per mask.

No matter what type of respirator mask you buy, be sure to follow these best practices for wearing masks, as recommended by the CDC.

How to spot fake masks

For N95s, look for a NIOSH approval label that begins with TC and is followed by seven digits. KN95 and KF94 should not have this label, as they are not NIOSH approved.

Appropriate N95s must have straps that go around the head and an “approval holder” designation written on the mask, which must specify either the manufacturer or the brand name of the product. Also look for a four-digit “part number” or “model number” on the mask.

Without NIOSH approval, fake KN95s and KF94s are less easy to spot. Your best bet is to stick with known or reputable providers, as mentioned above, but there are some things you can also research.

The KN95 is almost always a duckbill mask with ear loops, and it should have either a Mark GB2626-2019 if manufactured after July 2021, or GB2626-2006 if manufactured before. KN95 masks should have an expiration date of two or three years and the packaging should indicate when they were made.

KF94s are circular and less pointed than KN95s, and are generally made in South Korea, although some are also made in China, by CNET. If it is made in China, it is more likely to be fake. On the packaging, look for a red, white, and blue seal or wording indicating that the product has been approved by the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

For all masks, any label or print with spelling errors should also be considered suspicious. For more tips on counterfeit detection, check out this CDC Tip Sheet.

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