N95, KN95 and KF94 Masks: What’s the Difference?

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Two years of pandemic, masks are still part of everyday life, something most of us never imagined in February 2020. And amidst more contagious COVID-19 variants like omicronwearing a high quality face mask is more important than ever to slow the spread.

We already know that all face masks are not the same, and there is a difference between medical grade respirators and cloth face coverings. Now, as the pandemic drags on, high-filtration respirators like the N95s are gaining attention again, especially as they can filter particles much better than a cloth or surgical mask.

This guide compares N95 masks, KN95 masks and KF94 masks – three types of popular and protective masks – to help you buy smart masks and mask wearing decisions. Note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently updating their mask guidance. We will update this article as we learn more.

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An N95 mask.

Getty Images

  • Percentage of filtered aerosol particles: 95%
  • Approved by NIOSH: Yea
  • Who should use a: Anyone who wants to maximize protection against the ultra contagious omicron variant. N95s labeled “surgical” should be reserved for healthcare professionals.

N95 masks have been popular since the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. These masks are designed to create an extremely tight seal around the nose and mouth, thanks to elastic bands and an adjustable metal band over the nose. This is part of what makes them so effective (healthcare workers are individually tailored for their N95 respirators).

The other thing that makes N95s effective? They filter out 95% of particles as small as 0.3 microns in size, hence the 95 in the name. (Although SARS-CoV-2 virus particles are about 0.1 microns in size, keep in mind that virus particles are usually attached to something larger, such as respiratory droplets generated when speaking.)

N95s pass the rigorous inspection and certification established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Those intended to be used in medical settings must also be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for this purpose. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association calls N95s “essential protection against airborne pathogens.”

N95s aren’t in short supply like they were in the early days of the pandemic, so they’re available for use by the general public if you can get your hands on one. The CDC said that “when supplies are available, individuals may choose to wear a basic disposable N95 respirator for personal use.”

There is, however, a difference between the standard N95’s and those specifically labeled “surgical”. The latter should still be prioritized for healthcare workers, says the CDC, while the former can be used by anyone.

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A KN95 mask.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Percentage of filtered aerosol particles: 95% (but see below)
  • Approved by NIOSH: No
  • Who should use a: Anyone who wants to maximize protection from the ultra contagious omicron variant.

KN95 masks are considered the Chinese equivalent of N95 masks. They feature a tent-like shape that creates a small air pocket between the nose and the fabric, which makes them attractive to many people: they feel a little easier to breathe, less obstructive and smothering than the N95s.

However, since KN95 masks are not overseen by the mask regulator in the US, NIOSH (they are regulated by the Chinese government), it can be trickier to find trusted brands here. Amid high demand for respirators, many KN95s on the market are now fraudulent or counterfeit models – approximately 60% of KN95s are fakes that do not meet NIOSH standards, according to the CDC.

The FDA granted emergency use authorization to several KN95 masks early in the pandemic, when N95s were in short supply. And while that emergency use authorization has been revoked, the FDA list is still a useful source for finding reputable manufacturers.

Even KN95 masks that don’t meet NIOSH standards for filtration effectiveness are likely still more protective than basic surgical and cloth masks – as long as they offer a tight seal with no gaps.

Read more about where to buy reliable KN95s on CNET’s list of best face masks.

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A KF94 mask.

KN FLAX/Getty Images

  • Percentage of filtered aerosol particles: 94%
  • Approved by NIOSH: No
  • Who should use a: Anyone who wants to maximize protection from the ultra contagious omicron variant.

KF94 masks have grown in popularity since the start of the pandemic. The “KF” stands for “Korean filter” and the 94 refers to the mask’s filtering effectiveness. According to South Korean government standards, these masks filter out 94% of particles down to 0.3 microns in size.

The KF94s offer an alternative fit to the KN95s or N95s. They feature ear loops, an adjustable nose bridge and side flaps to create a snug fit. For some people, they are more comfortable and easier to use than the alternatives – unlike the N95’s in the US, the KF94’s are often used by ordinary citizens in Korea.

In a very small study from August 2020 (only seven people), researchers found that KF94 masks are just as effective at filtering out SARS-CoV-2 as N95 masks. Unlike KN95s, KF94 masks have not received USA from the FDA. Still, like the KN95s, the KF94s are a sharp upgrade from cloth or surgical masks.

You can help ensure you’re getting a good deal by purchasing brands made in Korea, where the KF94 label is strictly regulated. Some KF94s are made in China, but they are more likely to be counterfeits.

Fraudulent face masks have become a big problem at Amazon and other major online retailers. Manufacturers claim to be selling N95s, KN95s or KF94s, when in reality the masks they sell are not held to the same standards as masks that have been subjected to inspection by the US, Chinese or Korean governments. Sometimes sellers even put an approved brand name on a counterfeit product, making it even harder to tell the difference.

The CDC has a running list of N95s, KN95s, KF94s, and other non-NIOSH approved protective masks that have passed filtration testing. The list also includes known fakes.

It’s nearly impossible to spot fake masks, especially when shopping online, but there are a few steps you can take to ensure you get the best protection possible:

  • Buy from a trusted retailer like Project N95, a non-profit organization that examines personal protective equipment
  • Buy from reputable retailers like CVS or Walgreens who have verification processes for wholesale products
  • Look closely at seller ratings and product reviews
  • Be wary of new salespeople who seem to come out of nowhere
  • Double Mask if you are not sure about the quality of your masks

CNET also has a running list of the best face masksincluding N95s, KN95s, KF94s and surgical masks.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended for medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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