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By now, we know how absolutely crucial masks are in protecting ourselves and others from COVID-19. But with new variants of the virus popping up, there’s a renewed interest in which types of masks can protect us best. Though the gold standard among healthcare professionals seems to be the N95 mask, we’ve been seeing a lot of KN95 masks floating around. But are they equally effective? The short answer is, if you’re not working in healthcare, the KN95 mask might be a great option. Read on for everything you need to know.

What Is an N95 Mask?

According to the CDC, an N95 respirator (that’s the official term—respirator, not mask) is “a type of respirator which removes particles from the air that are breathed through it. These respirators filter out at least 95 percent of tiny (0.3 microns) particles. N95 FFRs [filtering facepiece respirator] are capable of filtering out all types of particles, including bacteria and viruses.” Respirators like N95s, including those intended for use in healthcare settings, are certified by the CDC or NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). In addition to stringent certification practices, N95 masks are typically tighter fitting than your run-of-the-mill face mask, meaning they allow fewer particles in or out. (That’s why, if you’ve ever tried one, it feels almost sealed to your face.)

What Is a KN95 Mask?

Though they look and sound remarkably similar, KN95 masks are held to entirely different standards than N95 masks. Both types are made from multiple layers of synthetic material and are designed to be worn over the mouth and nose, with straps that go behind your ears to hold the mask in place. The main difference lies in how the masks are certified. Sean Kelly, founder of New Jersey-based PPE of America, told Rolling Stone, “N95 mask requirements are a bit more stringent regarding the pressure drop in the mask during breathing in, which makes the N95 more breathable than most KN95 masks. The N95 masks have similar requirements for exhaling. These requirements make the N95 mask a bit more advanced with the overall breathability for users.”

Which Is Better?

We checked in with Dr. Erika Schwartz, a concierge doctor in New York, who told us, “The KN95 are made to follow Chinese, not American, standards. A study in September 2020 found that 70 percent of KN95 masks in the U.S. were counterfeit.” (This is the study she’s talking about.) Dr. Schwartz says that if you can get genuine KN95 masks, they are as good as N95 masks at keeping particles 0.3 microns out. Adding that N95 masks are the gold standard, Dr. Schwartz tells us, “With the arrival of new strains, if you cannot find real N95 or KN95, you should consider double-masking, so you get better protection.”

Also, note that just because the KN95s may not meet CDC/NIOSH standards, they’re not useless—especially for folks who don’t work in healthcare. Michael Argentieri, vice president for technology and safety at ECRI (the healthcare nonprofit that led the study mentioned above), said in a statement, “KN95 masks that don’t meet U.S. regulatory standards still generally provide more respiratory protection than surgical or cloth masks and can be used in certain clinical settings.”

What Is a KF94 Mask?

On another note, buyers have also been turning to KF94 masks. As Dr. Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease specialist, epidemiologist and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, describes the "KF" stands for "Korean filter" and the 94 indicates the masks' filtration efficacy. (This is based on the South Korean government's standards, BTW, making it comparable—if not equivalent by only 1 percent filtration—to the United States N95.) Furthermore, a study conducted in August 2020 found that KF94s were just as effective at filtering SARS-CoV-2 particles as N95 masks. Some of its notable features include having ear loops, an adjustable nose bridge, four layers of protection and side flaps that ensure a tight fit. So basically, they're another good alternative to N95s and mostly have to do with personal preference.

Nevertheless, we rounded up the top five masks to buy online right this minute.

The Top 5 Face Mask Recommendations Overall

RELATED: 8 Breathable Face Masks Made for Running, Biking and Working Out

Vida

1. Vida NIOSH and FDA Authorized N95 Mask (10-Pack)

Best N95 Mask Overall

Not only is this VIDA N95 mask NIOSH-approved (meaning it offers at least 95 percent filtration), but it's also available in a ten to 1,000 pack, so you can totally stock up for months at a time. The masks have an aluminum nose clip and a two-strap design that's meant to help you get the most secure and comfortable fit.

Buy It ($38)

Maskc

2. Maskc BLACK KN95 FACE MASKS (10-Pack)

Best KN95 Mask Overall

If you haven't scooped up a pack of KN95s from MASKC, now is the time to do. The Jennifer-Lopez approved-brand designs some of the most popular, comfortable KN95 masks on the market. This pack of ten is one of its best-selling items featuring five layers of protection and 95 percent filtration against particles, according to the company.

Buy It ($36)

VIDA

3. VIDA FDA Listed Adult KF94 Mask (10-Pack)

Best KF94 Mask Overall

If you're thinking about buying a KF94 mask, we suggest going with this guy. It has four layers of protection, and its innermost layer is made of a skin-friendly material (because maskne is a real thing, are we right?). According to the company, it offers 94 percent filtration, and it's manufactured in South Korea, so you don't have to worry as much about it being a counterfeit.

Buy It ($25)

Brave New Look

4. Brave New Look Kids KN95 Mask (20-Pack)

Best KN95 Mask for Kids

Looking for KN95s for the little ones? Look no further than Brave New Looks kid's pack of 20. According to the company, the masks are ideal for kids as young as 3, and feature a five-layer filtration system of non-woven breathable fibers designed to protect them without making them feel trapped.

Buy It ($100; $49)

Amazon

5. Kimberly-Clark PROFESSIONAL N95 Pouch Respirator (50-Pack)

Best Breathable N95 Mask

Breathability can make or break any face mask, and this PureWow-favorite is up to 75 percent more breathable than the NIOSH's minimum requirement, according to the company. One reviewer backed this up, writing, "I found breathing in [it] to be very comfortable, and I wore one for the entire day." The mask fits like a headband and has a long bendable nose piece, so you also shouldn't have trouble getting a comfortable fit.

$56 at Amazon

RELATED: Buyers Are Obsessed with VIDA's KN95 Face Masks—Here's Why You Need Some

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