There's one main way to tell a fake mask from a real one.

By Claire Gillespie
February 17, 2021
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The COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out, but face masks are here to stay...for a while, at least. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people wear masks "anywhere they will be around other people," including in public settings and at events and gatherings. Since February 2, 2021, masks have been required on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States, plus in US airports.

With the strong demand for masks has come a boom in counterfeit production. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told CNN that they seized over 14.6 million counterfeit face masks entering the US between the start of the pandemic began and the end of 2020.

Even health professionals have been scammed. Last week, hospitals across Washington State pulled select N95 masks off their shelves and sent them for analysis after an investigation uncovered counterfeits, reported NBC. Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) said the masks closely resemble N95 masks manufactured by a company called 3M, which are typically in high demand because they come in smaller sizes and fit snugly around the face.

The N95 mask (known as a respirator mask) is basically the gold standard in face covering; its unique electrostatic filter blocks 95% of large and small particles. Plus, the secure fit to the face reduces the risk of leakage—a common issue with a loose-fitting cloth or paper mask.

While the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) still advise the public not to buy and wear N95 masks because these are intended for health care workers, many experts believe the public should be able to wear the N95. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, told CNN on January 22, "An N95 that's well-fitted clearly is the best that you can do."

"The best use for N95 masks are in health care, where aerosol-generating procedures are done that may put health care workers at risk for aerosolized transmission," Shruti Gohil, MD, professor of medicine and associate medical director epidemiology and infection prevention with UCI Health, tells Health.

But if you're convinced you need an N95 mask and decide to look into purchasing them, here's how to spot if your mask is counterfeit.

NIOSH approval is key

The most important thing to look for is approval by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is the part of the CDC that focuses on worker safety and health. All filtering facepiece respirators—including N95 masks—must be certified by NIOSH before they can be used in the workplace.

NIOSH-approved masks always come with an approval label on or inside the mask packaging, either on the box or in the users' instructions. The mask should also have an abbreviated approval marking beginning with "TC," and the NIOSH logo printed on the mask itself. You can check the approval number on NIOSH certified equipment list.

Red flags before you buy

The CDC offers guidance for spotting a fake mask or mask company online, and it comes down to the basics: Are there typos, bad grammar, or other errors on the website? Do you see unfinished or blank pages, dummy text, broken links, and misspelled domains? If the answer is "yes" to any of these, give it a swerve.

If you're not buying directly from a supplier (i.e. you're going through a third party marketplace), keep in mind a few more things. If the listing uses the words "genuine" or "real," it's probably not. Any claim that the mask is approved for kids is false—NIOSH doesn't approve masks for children. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.

Finally, pay attention to the reviews—negative reviews, either for the product or the seller, are always a sign to steer clear. And remember, every approved N95 mask has head bands rather than ear loops, and N95s definitely won't ever have any decorative elements, like sequins.

If you don't have an N95 mask, there's no reason to worry. Remember, the CDC and WHO don't even recommend this type of make for the general public. What's more important is ensuring your mask fits well and is comfortable to wear, Dr. Gohil says. "Choose a mask that you're likely to wear and keep it on whenever you are in public, and try not to fidget with it" she advises.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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