A year into the coronavirus pandemic, buying a heavy-duty medical mask online remains downright maddening.
The most coveted mask to keep safe against Covid-19 has been the N95, the gold standard for pandemic protection because of its tight fit and 95 percent efficiency in filtering airborne particles. Then there’s the KN95 from China, a mask for medical workers, which also offers high filtration and is somewhat looser fitting.
But these masks have been far from easy to buy on the internet. When the pandemic hit last year, they immediately became scarce as health care workers and governments rushed to obtain them. The demand was so intense that a gray market sprang up for them.
Yet even after supplies have improved, it is often not easy to find authentic N95s and KN95s online. That’s because there are few brand-name makers, so it can be hard to know which of the dozens of manufacturers are reliable. And counterfeiters continue to flood the market, even on trusted sites like Amazon.
The result is frequently frustration, when wearing a heavy-duty mask is more important than ever. Last week, federal health officials emphasized the need for all of us to have tightfitting masks because of new fast-spreading coronavirus variants.
“People don’t know what’s legit, and they don’t know which suppliers are legit,” said Anne Miller, an executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps people buy protective coronavirus equipment. “We’ve had that issue since the very beginning of the pandemic.”
I recently spent hours comparing masks online and almost bought a pack of counterfeits on Amazon. Thankfully, I avoided falling into the trap and eventually found legitimate, high-quality masks from a trustworthy online retailer.
Along the way, I learned plenty about how to spot fraudulent mask listings and how to sidestep fake reviews. So here’s how to home in on real medical-grade masks that will keep you and your loved ones safe.
Pick a mask
My journey began on the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There I found charts of N95 and KN95 masks that the agency has tested, including the make, model number and filtration efficiency.
After some reading, I learned about the trade-offs between the two types of masks. The N95s typically have bands that strap over the back of your head, which is what makes them snug. They can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods.
The KN95s, which the Food and Drug Administration has approved for emergency use by health care workers, have ear loops for a tight fit that is slightly more comfortable than an N95. The downside is that the KN95 leaks a bit more air than an N95.
If you are often in high-risk areas like hospitals, N95s may be more suitable. But if you just need a protective mask for more casual use, like the occasional trip to the grocery store, KN95s are probably sufficient.
After doing the research, I decided a KN95 mask from Powecom, a Chinese brand, was best for my purposes. The mask scored 99 percent filtration efficiency in the C.D.C.’s tests.
From there, I visited Amazon, where I buy everything from dog food to batteries in the pandemic. That’s when things went awry.
Beware of Amazon
When I typed “Powecom KN95” into Amazon’s search box, the masks instantly popped up with a rating of 4.5 stars. I quickly clicked “Add to Cart.”
But before checking out, I scrolled down to read the reviews. There were about 130 — including a handful of one-star reviews from aggrieved buyers who said the masks were most likely fake. I emptied my shopping cart.
How had I almost bought a counterfeit? Saoud Khalifah, the founder of Fakespot, a company that offers tools to detect fake listings and reviews online, said a third-party seller had probably taken control of the product listing and sold fakes to make a quick buck.
“It’s a bit of a Wild West,” he said. “The normal consumers that shop on Amazon do not know that they just bought a fake mask. This is the biggest critical problem: You think it’s real, and suddenly you get sick.”