“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, recently said on “CNN Newsroom.”
Here’s what you need to know about masks like N95s, where to get them and how to use them safely.
Why are experts recommending N95s now?
Cloth masks — encouraged earlier in the pandemic — can filter large droplets, while more effective masks, such as N95s, can filter both large droplets and the smaller aerosols or particles potentially laden with airborne virus if infected people are present, Bromage said.
Why the Omicron variant of coronavirus has been infecting many people so quickly is currently unknown, but it emphasizes the importance of wearing high-quality masks, Bromage said.
“If it is less virus needed, or if it is a person who’s infected is putting more virus out, then the role of a mask in this is, if we can cut down the amount that you’re actually breathing in, you get more time” before potentially getting infected, he added.
What’s the difference between N95s and KN95s?
“If they’re made to the standard and certified by the appropriate boards in their country like NIOSH here, they all do basically the same thing,” Bromage said. They “may meet the standards, but they’re not certified to meet it. And there’s others that clearly don’t.”
How can I spot a fake N95, KN95 or KF94?
“If you’re going to look for a KN95 mask, what we would recommend is to make sure that it has the (Chinese government) standard written on the side of the mask, similar to NIOSH” standards for US N95s, Carothers said.
Those Chinese government standards on KN95s should say GB 2626-2019 or GB 2626-2006, which was the standard before GB 2626-2019, Carothers advised.
Can children wear N95s, KN95s or KF94s?
The N95s are medical masks made for health care workers, so, naturally, there aren’t N95 masks designed or made for children, since only adults would be working in health care settings.
“If you see an N95 as marketed for children, that should raise a red flag,” Marr said. “There will be KN95 and KF94s that are designed for and marketed for children. With those, it’s the same issue as we discussed for adults, which is to make sure you’re getting them from a trusted, reputable source.
“… Certainly, for children, a KN95 or KF94 will provide better protection on average than a surgical mask or cloth mask,” Marr added.
Where can I get N95s, KN95s or KF94s?
Specially labeled “surgical” N95s “should be reserved for use by healthcare personnel,” the CDC says, but other N95s can be found at some home improvement stores, retailers and drugstores.
Amazon has said it prohibits sellers from claiming their KN95 masks are “FDA-approved,” since the US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve KN95 masks.
“If you’re going to go to Amazon, just make sure you’re buying from the (N95) manufacturer’s direct store, like their official store” on Amazon, Collins said.
Is reusing N95s safe?
In medical settings, health care staff frequently change masks to avoid cross-contaminating a patient’s room with equipment that was worn in a different space with an infectious person, Bromage explained. “When you take a medical-grade thing that’s single use and then put it in the general public, we’re not worried about you cross-contaminating different environments. … It’s really about providing protection to you.”
So, yes, you can reuse your N95 mask.
Even after wearing an N95 in a crowded indoor setting — such as a subway or grocery store — an N95’s material and filtration ability aren’t “going to degrade unless you physically rub it or poke holes in it,” said Marr, adding that she wears her N95 masks for a week. “You’d have to be in really polluted air … for several days before it lost its ability to filter out particles.”
However, there are things to keep in mind to reuse an N95 safely: When putting it on, avoid touching the front outer part of the mask; instead handle it by its edges or straps.
If the mask becomes damp, visibly dirty, bent, creased, difficult to breathe through or otherwise damaged — including from makeup — you should replace it to avoid wearing a less effective mask, Marr and Bromage said.
Can I somehow clean N95s?
You shouldn’t wash an N95, since water would dissipate the mask’s special static charge that helps it filter out viruses so well, Marr said.
What you can do is set the mask aside, because particles will die off within several hours, she added, and that will occur even faster when you place it in sunlight.
But the fact that warmer temperatures can have a “sanitizing” effect on N95s doesn’t mean you should throw the masks in an oven or microwave, Bromage said. That could ruin the mask. “I used to stick mine on the dashboard of my car in summer, and that would do more than enough.”
CNN’s Katherine Dillinger and John Bonifield contributed to this story.