The N95 mask is the most essential piece of COVID-19 protective gear. Two years into the pandemic, fake masks from uncertified manufacturers pervade the marketplace, both online and offline.
Doctors and health experts have time and again argued that an N95 mask is ideal against the COVID-19 virus because it protects from airborne droplets and filters 95 per cent of particles larger than 0.3 microns. But it is not easy to scroll through hundreds of counterfeit masks that have flooded popular e-commerce portals and local stores.
But a moot question is how does one define an N95 mask and how different is it from a normal mask. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an N95 respirator is a protective equipment "designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles."
The FDA points out that the edges of this mask are designed to form a seal around the nose and the mouth. Health experts argue that one of the ways to check the efficacy of an N95, and to distinguish it from a fake one, is whether the mask is leading to fogginess of spectacles. If it does, it means there is still room for air to pass through that is causing the fogginess of the glasses and it is likely a fake one.
A surgical mask, or a cloth mask, in comparison is more loose fitting, thereby allowing plenty of air to pass through.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has certified manufacturers of the N95 mask. Further, the US National Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) uses the term N95 for quality tested masks to include the flow rate, resistance, leakage, and filtration efficiency.
In India, all medical masks fall under the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO). But the organisation is yet to give a list of certified manufacturers for the Indian market. The Indian government has allowed mask manufacturers to manufacture and then register within 18 months. There are only 11 labs in the country which test and certify masks for quality assurance.
Besides, there is also the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) that has prescribed quality standards for masks, such as IS:9473, but there is little data available on certified manufacturers.
Other than N95, there are other variants available in the market as well. One very popular one is the KN95, which is a Chinese equivalent. However, a KN95 is approved by NIOSH. Similarly, there is also a Korean version, called KF94, which claims to filter 94 per cent of aerosol particulates.
For this article, we will focus only on N95 that is certified by NIOSH and CDC and not on other variants that do not have these certifications.
To begin with, before buying, the brand name of the N95 mask should be checked on the CDC's index to ensure that it has been approved by NIOSH. Two of the most reliable NIOSH certified mask manufacturers are 3M and Magnum. The latter also launched a campaign to ensure Genuine Right Quality masks are available through Magnum e-store.
How to find high-quality masks from online retailers?
When you type N95 on e-commerce websites, hundreds of masks pop up claiming to be certified by the CDC. But a lot of them are fakes sold from third-party sellers. They are misspelt and have accented characters to bypass fraud detection. Some N95 masks falsely claim to be washable.
Here's what to check:
- Look for missing American standard certification called 42 CFR 84.
- A blank mask without any matter/logo, etc. is not authentic.
- It must have an acronym in block letters or "NIOSH" logo that indicates that it has got the approval as per CDC.
- Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands
- Check NIOSH is spelt correctly.
- The name of the brand manufacturer (for instance, 3M, Magnum) and registered trademark must be printed on the mask.
- Check the brand name on the CDC's index to ensure that it has got approval by NIOSH.
- The mask should have a certification and testing code followed by a numerical code as per "TC".
- It should contain the letter: R, N, or P for 'filter class' followed by efficiency number (100, 99, or 95), for example, "N95".
- It should have an alphanumeric model printed on the mask.
- Check seller's reviews and history before buying.
- Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins)
- Claims of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children)
- Check bad grammar, spelling errors, broken links, unfinished pages for fake websites.
Note: Despite the checks, counterfeit masks can slip through fake advertising. Remain extra careful and vigilant before buying an N95 mask.
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