N95, KN95 and KF94 masks: What’s the difference and which one to use?

Learn the difference between N95, KN95 and KF94 masks. The one pictured here is a KN95.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the latest news and information on the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

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

We already know that not all face masks are equal and that there is a difference between medical grade respirators and cloth face coverings. Now that the pandemic is dragging on, high-filtration respirators like N95s are getting attention, not least because they can filter particles much better than a cloth or surgical mask.

This guide compares N95 masks, KN95 masks, and KF94 masks – three popular and protective mask types – to help you shop and buy masks smarter. mask-wearing decisions. Note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently in the process of updating its mask guidelines. We’ll update this article as we learn more.

N95 Masks


An N95 mask.

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  • Percentage of Aerosol Particles Filtered: 95%
  • NIOSH approved: Yes
  • Who should wear one: Anyone who wants to maximize protection against the ultra-contagious variant of omicron. N95s labeled “surgical” should be reserved for healthcare workers.

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 headbands and an adjustable metal band on the nose. That’s part of what makes them so effective (healthcare workers are individually fitted for their N95 respirators).

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

N95s are subject to the rigorous inspection and certification established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Those intended for medical use must also be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for this purpose. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association calls N95s “the mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens.”

N95s aren’t as rare as they were at the start of the pandemic, so they’re available to the general public, if you can get your hands on them. The CDC said “when supplies are available, individuals may choose to use a basic disposable N95 respirator for personal use.”

There is, however, a difference between standard N95s and those specifically labeled “surgical”. The latter should always be prioritized for healthcare workers, according to the CDC, while the former can be used by anyone.

KN95 Masks


A KN95 mask.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Percentage of Aerosol Particles Filtered: 95% (but see below)
  • NIOSH approved: No
  • Who should wear one: Anyone who wants to maximize protection against 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 pocket of air between your nose and the fabric, which makes them appealing to many people: they feel a bit easier to breathe, less obstructive and stuffy than the N95s.

However, since KN95 masks are not overseen by the mask regulator in the United States, NIOSH (they are regulated by the Chinese government instead), it can be more difficult to find reliable brands here. Amid high demand for respirators, many KN95s on the market are now fraudulent or counterfeit models — about 60% of KN95s are knockoffs that don’t meet NIOSH standards, according to the CDC.

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

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

Learn more about where to buy reliable KN95s from CNET’s list of best masks.

KF94 Masks


A KF94 mask.

KN FLAX/Getty Images

  • Percentage of Aerosol Particles Filtered: 94%
  • NIOSH approved: No
  • Who should wear one: Anyone who wants to maximize protection against 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 filtration efficiency of the masks. According to South Korean government standards, these masks filter 94% of particles down to 0.3 microns.

KF94s offer an alternative to KN95 or N95. 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 wear than the alternatives – unlike N95s in the US, KF94s are often worn by ordinary citizens in Korea.

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

You can make sure you’re getting the real deal by buying brands made in Korea, where the KF94 label is strictly regulated. Some KF94s are made in China, but are more likely to be counterfeits.

Avoid counterfeit masks

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

The CDC has a running list of N95, KN95, KF94, and other non-NIOSH-approved protective masks that have undergone filtration testing. The list also includes known counterfeits.

It’s nearly impossible to spot counterfeit masks, especially when shopping online, but there are a few steps you can take to make sure you’re getting the best protection possible:

  • Buy from a trusted retailer like Project N95, a nonprofit that verifies personal protective equipment
  • Buy from reputable retailers, such as CVS or Walgreens, that have verification processes for wholesale products
  • Carefully review seller ratings and product reviews
  • Beware of new sellers who seem to appear out of nowhere
  • Double-mask if you are unsure of the quality of your masks

CNET also has a running list of best masks, including N95, KN95, KF94 and surgical masks.

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

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