Everything you need to know about masks — including how to tell if your N95 or KN95 is real

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2022 - 12:35pm
Updated: Tuesday, January 25, 2022 - 2:45pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (11.79 MB)

A mask sign at a Phoenix school
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A sign at a Phoenix school in January 2022.

After record highs this past weekend, new coronavirus infections have gone down in Arizona over the last couple of days.

The state’s department of health services reported 13,972 cases and no additional deaths Jan. 25.

There are also mixed signals from hospitals. The number of inpatient cases is up again, but the amount of those in critical care has been dropping.

More than 20,000 new vaccine doses were reported around the state, but according to the Mayo Clinic, Arizona’s full vaccination rate of 58.5% remains about 5% below the national average.

Public health officials are still pushing for us all to do what we can to limit the spread of the omicron variant as it begins to subside in our state. That includes getting vaccinated and wearing masks, but now, the public health guidance on masks is changing again, encouraging the wearing of N95 or KN95 masks because omicron is so transmissible.

From the beginning, the mask question has been a conundrum. At first they told us not to wear them, then to wear them for other people, then to wear them for our own protection.

There are still plenty of questions about masks, so to help shed light on the best practices, The Show spoke with Dr. Shad Marvasti, director of public health, prevention and health promotion at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Phoenix. He provided the latest guidance and advice on how to identify authentic masks.

Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A box of N95 masks.

How effective are N95 and KN95 masks?

These higher quality masks, the N95 and KN95 respirators, as they're called by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, filter out 95% or more of the particles that are in the air, including these viral particles, making them really effective in terms of stopping the spread and preventing.

What's the best mask recommendation right now?

Well, it's definitely true that any kind of mask is better than no mask — unless you keep wearing that mask multiple times without cleaning, or isolating it for a period of time. In which case, your mask can actually be a source of infection because the particles will latch onto it. So, I think in general ... everyone should be wearing either an N95, a KN95 or a KF94.

How about when and where we wear masks?

The way I navigate it is that I wear as mask indoors in public and the grocery store. ... Anytime you go indoors somewhere public, you should wear a high quality masks. I don't dine inside restaurants, especially when the numbers are as high as they are, because there is really no difference. Just wearing a mask to walk to your table. ... or you're going to go to the basketball game, you have to wear a mask going into the arena, but then you can take it off to eat. So, that kind of defeats the point. I just do outdoor patio dining, and I think that's probably the safest. And the only time you should be wearing a mask outdoors is if you're in a crowd in public. Otherwise if you're out and about, and it's not a big crowd of people and you can keep the distance, and you're outside, there's really no reason to wear a mask. And I don't do that either.

How to tell if your mask is authentic

NIOSH seal

N95s have to be certified by NIOSH the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, so N95 masks should have a NIOSH seal on it in block letters.

The NIOSH logo on a package of N95 masks
Jean Clare Sarmiento/KJZZ
The NIOSH logo on a package of N95 masks.

TC alpha-numeric designation

N95 masks should also have a TC alpha-numeric designation number. It should say TC-84A.

stack of of N95 masks.
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
The code on a stack of of N95 masks.

N95 for children

There is no N95 for children. So if something says N95 for kids, you know that it's not authentic. The key to masks for kids to get one that is sized to the face of your child.

A KN95 mask
Tim Agne/KJZZ
A smaller-size KN95 mask for children.

How KN95 and and KF94 masks are different

KN95 and and KF94 masks are a bit more difficult because you don't have those types marks on them, such as the NIOSH seal. For these masks, make sure there is a tamper-evident package or presence so the mask are sealed.

There should be an expiration date, because the particle repelling electrostatic charge on the respirator mask actually degrades over time. If there's no expiration date, it's not a legitimate KN95 or KF94.

box of N95 masks
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
An expiration date on a box of N95 masks.

Marvasti said if you don’t have an N95 or KN95, any mask is still better than no mask. The Biden administration has plans to begin distributing free N95 masks at pharmacies and community centers nationwide in the coming weeks.

More Stories From KJZZ

Coronavirus Science The Show