N95 masks are all the rage right now. What exactly qualifies as an N95 mask and how do they help in the fight against COVID-19?  There are hundreds of sellers selling Fake N95 Masks online and offline, how would you identify a fake from a real? Read on to get an answer to all the above questions.

What are N95 Masks?

The “N95” (or “KN95”) designation means that the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 microns) test particles. If properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of face masks.
N95 masks must filter out 95% of all airborne particles, including ones too tiny to be blocked by looser fitting surgical masks.

Why are they important in the fight against COVID- 19?

In a retrospective study of 6 hospitals in Wuhan during the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19, 10 doctors and nurses out of 213 who wore no mask and had usual hand hygiene practices became corona infected, while none of the 278 doctors and nurses who wore an N95 mask and practiced hand hygiene caught the infection.

The N95 mask reduces the transmission of aerosol by 70%, whereas the surgical mask reduces transmission by 50% and cotton masks by 40%. Maximum protection from catching the infection from others by the aerosol route is offered by the N95 mask (99%), whereas the surgical mask offers 75-80% protection and the cloth mask by around 50-70%. Wearing any mask is better than wearing no mask, both in terms of transmission and protection.

How are N95 masks made?

N95 masks are made of several layers of special non-woven fabric, with a filtration facepiece respirator (FFP) in the middle.

Quality Control

In the case of an N95 mask, there are several potential points of failure to be concerned with. First, the mask must be designed and manufactured so that the entire perimeter of the mask fits firmly where it comes in contact with the face, in order to block entry to pathogens around the mask’s edge. And the mask material itself must block 95 percent of particles of 0.3 microns or larger.

To ensure a proper fit, legitimate N95 masks have elastic bands that go around the head and not ear loops. So-called N95 masks that have ear loops are an immediate giveaway that they are fake.

And even if the electrocharged fibers in the fabric are the same as in an N95 mask, masks with ear loops are not as effective because tiny airborne droplets carrying the virus can get sucked through the cracks.

Fake N95 Masks flooding the market.

Taking advantage of the severe short supply of masks, many dubious companies are making fake N95 masks. On 31st March 2020, more than 12,000 fake N95 masks were seized in Bengaluru. They were made up of fabric used in the manufacture of vests and collar canvas. The company had already sold 70,000 fake N95 masks for 1.05 Crore rupees and were lobbying to win a government contract for 10,000 masks.

On Flipkart, the 3M N95 masks were custom-branded by sellers such as Glasszone and Friendskart, neither of which are verified resellers of 3M’s.

How to identify Fake N95 masks? 

The N95 mask should be CE certified and NIOSH approved. NIOSH has a website that has a list of certified license holders to manufacture the N95 mask. The important thing to identify is the TC number on the particular mask.

The biggest sign is the use of ear loops vs. headbands. NIOSH-approved respirators have headbands, which provide a tighter fit and greater protection against COVID-19 air particles. 
One of the key distinguishing features between N95 and KN95 are the ear loops.

All NIOSH-approved respirators carry an approval label on the packaging and/or within user instructions. If you don’t have access to the original box, check for an abbreviated approval sign on the respirator itself. 

Counterfeit respirators commonly have no facepiece markings (including NIOSH), and/or approval (i.e. TC) numbers on either the facepiece or headband. 

“NIOSH” is often misspelled on counterfeit equipment.

NIOSH-approved products do not contain decorative fabrics or add-ons, such as sequins.

Claims for the of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children).

FDA  Certification (registration vs. approval vs. cleared)

If your supplier says that the KN95 is FDA approved (RED-FLAG) 

FDA doesn’t approve N95 respirators. It is a class 2 device that only requires FDA clearance. Even 3M, the official N95 for hospitals, does not use the word approval, but FDA-cleared.

FDA logo on the box – FDA does NOT allow a vendor to put the FDA logo on the box of a respirator. This is the easiest way to help spot a KN95 that is NOT FDA approved. Let me say this again: If the box or the label has an FDA logo, then it is DEFINITELY NOT FDA APPROVED.

FDA registration certificate as proof of “FDA approval”

Your FDA certificate is likely an FDA registration certificate and not an FDA-approval. FDA has a TWO step process where ANY company can REGISTER their product with the FDA before getting clearance or approval. This registration certificate is given to a company that paid the FDA fee to get registered.
Many companies will try to mislead you to believe that their KN-95 is FDA-approved by submitting an FDA registration certificate as proof. Once again, FDA registration is NOT FDA approval.

These are examples of the FDA-cleared N95 respirators from 3M.

Do you notice the elastic bands? They all WRAP COMPLETELY around the head!

How to remove your mask properly?

First, wash your hands thoroughly before putting on your mask. When you’re ready to take it off, do not touch the front of the mask — it could be contaminated. Instead, remove the mask by pulling the bottom strap over the back of your head, followed by the top strap. Discard the mask, and then wash your hands.

When do I replace my N95 Mask?

If there is visible damage to the filter or you begin to have trouble breathing through it. Disposable(surgical) masks should be discarded altogether, while other masks are designed to be reused with a replacement filter.

Methods to wash/sterilize your N95 mask before reusing it.

The different ways of sterilizing and reusing the N95 mask are as follows –

Air drying: This is a simple way of reusing the N95 respirator mask. Drying the mask kills the virus, but it takes at least 48 hours to dry. 

Heat in an oven: Heating at 70 degrees C for 30 mins kills the virus. There should be no contacting metal, and check if the N95 material used is not inflammable, if it is, do not heat in the oven.

Dry heat in a rice cooker: Put the N95 mask in a traditional electric rice cooker without putting any water inside for 3 mins, until the temp is 149 -164 degrees C.14