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What are the differences between N95, KN95, surgical and cloth masks?

What are the differences between N95, KN95, surgical and cloth masks?
A child in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, wears a child-sized, KN95 mask in January 2022 as the Omicront variant sent COVID-19 cases soaring.  Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, rising cases and recent headlines, such as the Biden administration's plan to distribute 400 million free N95s to Americans, have put renewed focus on masks – and perhaps raised as many questions as ever. What masks are best to help slow the spread of the Omicron variant? Does it matter if you wear a KN95 instead of an N95? Can your cloth mask still be trusted to keep you safe?

To help you sort through your options, especially in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated mask guidance, we've put together a mask-by-mask explainer. What's the difference between the N95, the KN95, the surgical mask and the cloth mask? Read on. And no matter what mask you opt for, make sure it's a tight-fitting one!

What you need to know about N95 face masks

Not all masks are N95s. The N95 is a respirator mask that's been tested in the United States for effectiveness. It filters the air you breathe in, rather than, as with a common mask, merely catching droplets of what you breathe out. In order to be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an N95 must filter at least 95% of particles greater than 0.3 microns in size.

Please note: If you run across an N95 mask that does not bear the initials of the NIOSH, then beware: It's not a genuine N95; it's a counterfeit. For more information on face mask fakes, read our guide to spotting counterfeit N95 masks.

Early in the pandemic, and for a long time after, you probably heard federal officials discourage the wearing and purchasing of N95s. That was because the government believed well-fitted and readily available cloth masks would do the trick for the average American – and, at the same time, preserve the nation's N95 stock for the medical professional. But that was then, this is now: As noted, at the direction of the White House, 400 million N95s will soon be available for average Americans to pick up – for free – at pharmacies and health centers; the nationwide effort will begin to roll out next week. Supplies of free N95 masks will likely be limited, though there's no shortage of N95 masks available for sale, some of which we've shared below.

At the same time, the CDC's mask guidelines now note that the surgical N95, a subcategory of the N95, is the respirator that should be reserved for workers in medicine and healthcare. As for non-surgical N95s, like the ones that'll soon be shipped by the feds to a CVS or Walgreens near you? Go for it, the CDC says: Among all the masks on the market, per the agency, N95s and other NIOSH-certified respirators "offer the highest level of protection."

If you don't want to wait for the free N95s, or you just want to have extras on hand, here are some highly rated N95s we found available for purchase today.

Kimberly-Clark professional N95 pouch respirator (50 pack)

Kimberly-Clark PROFESSIONAL N95 Pouch Respirator

If you're willing to purchase 50 masks, these, from Kimberly-Clark, have a large breathing chamber for comfort and soft but strong headbands. Note, however, that these N95 face masks may not ship immediately -- at last look, Amazon notes these masks can be delivered in as few as two days.

Kimberly-Clark professional N95 pouch respirator (50 pack), $57

3M N95 8210 respirator (20 pack)

3M Personal Protective Equipment Particulate Respirator 8210

These 3M masks prevent eyewear fogging and have a foam cushion for maximum comfort on your nose.

3M N95 8210 respirator (20 pack), $29

3M Aura N95 respirator (10 pack)

3M Aura Particulate Respirator 9205+ N95

These disposable N95 masks by 3M feature an adjustable nose clip, chin tab and a low-profile design that directs air away from the nose panel to reduce eyewear fogging. 

3M Aura N95 respirator (10 pack), $21

HDX N95 respirator mask (10 pack)

N95 disposable mask
Home Depot

Home Depot has several N95 face mask options, including this 10-pack. These N95s have an adjustable nose clip and head strap.

HDX N95 respirator mask, size M/L (10 pack), $19

KN95 face masks   

Like the N95, the KN95 is a respirator mask. Unlike the N95, the KN95 is not vetted by the NIOSH or any other U.S. agency. (And, if while shopping for masks, you happen to see a KN95 with NIOSH markings? Skip it. It's another counterfeit.) 

KN95 is an international designation, and while the CDC says filtration standards vary, the agency considers the KN95 the next-best masking option to the N95, so long as the mask is genuine. Genuine KN95 will filter at least 95% of particles, just as N95s do. But KN95 masks are more frequently counterfeited -- the CDC estimates that roughly 60% of KN95 masks are fakes.

For parents, the KN95 may be the best option for the youngest members of the family. That's because some KN95s are available in sizes suitable for children – and no genuine N95s are.

KF94 face masks

Like KN95, KF94 is an international designation. As the number suggests, genuine KF94 masks will filter at least 94% of particles.

Here are recommendations for KF94 and KN95 face masks you can purchase or check stock on today:

Happy Life kids KF94 (20 pack)

Happy Life kids KF94

These masks, with four layers, come individually packaged, are made of an eco-friendly material, and claim to meet Korea's KF94 standard (94% filtration efficiency). Reviewers recommend this size for older children.

Happy Life kids KF94 (20 pack), $31

WellBefore KN95 kids masks

WellBefore KN95 Kids Masks

These individually wrapped face masks are only $1.49 each, or $1.19 each with a regular shipment subscription. They're made of five layers (for kids for ages 5 to 12), or four layers (for ages 2 to 4). Their earloops are adjustable, and they have a moisture-wicking inner layer. Find them in three sizes for kids.

WellBefore KN95 kids masks, $1.49

Powecom kids KN95-SM respirator mask (10 pack)

Powecom KN95-SM Respirator Mask
Bona Fide Masks

This multi-layer, breathable KN95 mask can be purchased in a 10 pack (or more).

Powecom kids KN95-SM respirator mask (10 pack), $13

What you need to know about surgical masks

When we talk about surgical masks in terms of COVID protection, we're talking about what the CDC calls disposable procedure masks. They loop around your ears, they feature multiple layers of non-woven material and they each feature a wire that you can bend and shape at the ridge of your nose for a tight fit. And, yes, they're disposable – or, rather, you should be disposing of them regularly. Surgical masks that get wet or dirty should not be worn, the CDC advises. 

In terms of effectiveness in preventing the spread of COVID, the CDC puts surgical masks on the same level as KN95s – the agency says both offer more protection than cloth masks, but less protection than N95s. 

Here's a rundown of highly rated disposable procedure or surgical masks that we found in stock and available via Amazon: 

HDFK disposable earloop face masks (50 pack) 

Face Mask Disposable Adults 3Ply Non-Woven (50 Pack)
HDFK via Amazon

These three-layer masks feature the standard ear loop design, non-woven, layered material and all-important nose wire. They're available in that hospital shade of blue that we've become so familiar with over the past two years.

HDFK disposable earloop face mask (50 Pack), $14 (reduced from $19)

Biwisy disposable face masks (50 pack)

Biwisy 50 Pcs Disposable Face Masks Comfortable Mask 4-Layer Grey Masks
Biwisy via Amazon

Tired of that familiar hospital shade of blue? These four-layered disposable masks from Biwisy come with all the safeguards you need, plus all the variety you crave. Available in black, gray and, yup, blue. Prices vary. 

Biwisy 50 Pcs Disposable Face Masks Comfortable Mask 4-Layer Grey Masks, $14 (reduced from $18)

Black disposable 3-ply face masks (100 pack)

Black Disposable Face Mask 100 Pack 3 Ply Breathable Dust Masks for Adults
LASHA via Amazon

Don't run out of masks again. Get 100 three-ply disposable masks in fashionable black.   

Black disposable 3-ply face masks (100 pack), $12

Cloth mask

A cloth mask is the least defined of the masks covered here. Some cloth masks feature multiple layers (good!), a pocket for disposable N95 filters (good!) and nose wires (good!). Some consist of nothing but a thin, single layer of fabric that'll keep you on the right side of, say, travel requirements, but won't do much else. "Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection…," the CDC says.

Still, a cloth mask is better than no mask at all. For a more effective cloth mask, the CDC suggests pairing it with a disposable mask. The cloth mask should be worn as the top (or, outside) layer.

Here are some cloth face masks that you can buy (and pair with your disposable mask!) today:

Madewell assorted adjustable adult face masks (3 pack)

3-Pack Assorted Adjustable Adult Face Masks

Pick up these face masks from Madewell, currently on deep discount at Nordstrom. These cotton masks feature three-layer construction with a filter and adjustable ear loops. They're also available in another color and print combination. 

Madewell assorted adjustable adult face masks (3 pack), $9.90 (reduced from $24)

Caraa printed universal adult masks (4 pack)

Caraa printed universal adult masks

These dual-layer pastel masks from Caraa come in a cheery confetti print. They're washable, have a nose wire and can be used with a filter. There are other prints available too. 

Caraa printed universal adult masks (4 pack), $25

Lululemon ear loop face mask (3 pack)

lululemon Ear Loop Face Mask

These sweat-wicking masks from Lululemon, available in nine colorways, are a comfortable-to-wear choice for working out. While this mask is designed for exercise, note that it is not a medical-grade mask and is not ideal for day-to-day use.

Lululemon ear loop face mask (3 pack), $38

Nordstrom adult face masks (4 pack)

Yellow face mask from Nordstrom

These washable, double-layer masks from Nordstrom, made out of jersey cotton, feature a tie dye print and a built-in cotton filter pocket. Adjustable ear loops with sliding straps help secure it in place on your face.

The four pack of masks is currently 76% off -- that's less than $1.50 per mask. For each package of masks purchased, Nordstrom will donate a mask to "help protect kids and families in our communities."

Assorted adult face masks (4 pack), $5.90 (reduced from $25)

Herschel classic fitted face mask

Herschel classic fitted face mask

These Herschel masks, available in eight colors and prints, currently have a buy one, get one free discount. They're made with three layers and have a sleeve that fits an air filter. They have an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. They also come with a connection lock that you can wrap around your head and attach to both loops to ease the pressure of the loops on your ears.

Herschel classic fitted face mask, $15 (buy one get one free)

Oakley MSK3 anti-fog face mask

Oakley MSK3 anti-fog face mask

If you struggle with your glasses or sunglasses fogging up when you wear a face mask, try this no-slip Oakley mask, which promises to solve this issue. It fits snugly on the face and has adjustable straps. It has an aluminum nose bridge that allows for easy adjustments around your glasses, and a semi-rigid mask body that promises to keep the mask slightly off your face for improved breathability. Replacement filters are available for purchase.

Oakley MSK3 anti-fog face mask, $58 (Amazon)

Oakley MSK3 anti-fog face mask, $60 (Oakley)

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