How to find authentic N95 and KN95 masks in Canada
And, how to spot and avoid the fakes.
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Editor's Note: February 18, 2022 We plan to order KN95 masks from multiple companies, including Bona Fide Masks, CanadaStrong, CanGard, PPE Online, WWDOLL, and more for testing. This article will be updated regularly as these shipments arrive.
With some COVID-19 mandates seemingly here to stay for at least the next little while, and new, more highly transmissible variants of COVID-19 like Omnicron continuing to evolve, wearing a mask has become a part of everyday life. Even though the new variants do appear to be less severe, it's still a good idea to do what you can to avoid catching it.
Wearing masks is the first line of defence, and as travel and public event attendance is on the rise, many are looking to upgrade their masks to ones that offer better protection. Cloth masks can help and are fashionable, but you should opt for an N95 or KN95 mask if you want the best possible protection. Health Canada confirms that while non-medical masks "can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, medical masks and respirators provide better protection."
The problem is, where can you find them? And even when you do presumably spot N95 or KN95 masks for sale online, how do you know they are not counterfeit? It's concerning that the CDC said close to 60% of KN95 masks that were evaluated in 2020 and 2021 by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the organization that tests and approves masks, did not meet the stated requirements and levels of protection. So how do you know? First, let's delve into what N95 and KN95 masks are.
What are N95 and KN95 masks?
Both N95 and KN95 masks are verified and tested to filter up to 95% of particles in the air that you could otherwise be breathing in with a less protective mask. This includes "very small test particles, such as pathogens," says Health Canada.
N95 and KN95 masks both have virtually identical ratings when it comes to testing on filter performance, flow rate, and inhalation resistance, though N95 masks potentially offer slightly better breathability. The difference is that N95 is the standard in the U.S. and Canada and KN95 is the standard in China. The equivalent standard in Europe is FFP2.
What regulatory standards exist for other masks in Canada?
There are no standards or regulations for non-medical masks in Canada. The level of protection offered comes down to the materials used, the constructed, how well they fit around the mouth and nose, and correct usage by the wearer. (Even then, they do not have filter ratings as high as N95 or KN95).
Health Canada recommends against the use of masks with exhalation valves, which "allow infectious respiratory particles to escape." Alan Perry, President of Safecross First Aid Ltd. agrees, noting that while masks with valves "might protect the person wearing it, it does not protect the people around you should you be the one who has an infectious disease."
Disposable non-medical masks are a popular choice that resemble medical masks, but they don't meet regulatory standards in Canada. However, if they include ASTM F2100 or EN 14983 on the box's label, it means they have been tested to meet international standards for filtering bacteria, resistance fluids, and allowing for sufficient breathability. But there are also no regulations in Canada regarding standards for these types of masks, so they're essentially buyer beware. Bottom line: Your best bet to ensure proper protection is to go with N95 or KN95.
What regulatory standards exist for N95 and KN95 masks in Canada?
Like in the U.S., masks sold in Canada labelled as N95 and KN95 need to meet standards set by NIOSH. N95 masks are also regulated by Health Canada as Class I medical devices, and should only be manufactured and imported by companies that hold a Medical Device Establishment License. Despite this, products that do not meet these standards have managed to squeak their way into the country.
When it comes to N95 masks, also called respirators, you should look for the NIOSH label. NIOSH N95 masks that have a number on the device in the form of TC-84A-#### are approved for use and can be considered genuine. The same goes for 95PFE products or CSA-certified CA-N95 and CA-N99 respirators marked as per the CSA Z94.4.1 standard and have been approved, tested, and certified in Canada by the CSA Group.
KN95 masks must meet the standard GB 2626-2006 or GB 2626-2019. Some KN95 masks failed to meet filtration criteria in Canada, and while they may still be available for sale in the country, Health Canada has ordered them to be re-labelled as "face masks" and not "respirators." Health Canada also continuously works with retailers to remove unauthorized products or companies from their websites. Still, it's always possible for more to pop up quicker than they can detect them. There are also KF94 masks, which must meet the KMOEL-2017-64 standard and FEP2 masks that meet standard EN 149-2001.
How to verify if an N95 and KN95 mask sold in Canada is authentic or counterfeit
There are a few simple checks you can make to verify the authenticity of a mask labelled as N95 or KN95, both before you purchase them as well as upon unboxing.
Look for the right logo
According to the CDC, NIOSH-approved N95 masks will have the properly stylized and spelled NIOSH logo and certification marks. Health Canada also suggests looking for the filter efficiency labelled on the mask and/or packaging along with something as simple as the manufacturer's name.
The proper markings
Look for markings on the facepiece, along with an approval (TC) number for N95 masks, which will indicate that it's authentic. If nothing is there, it is probably counterfeit. There's a handy image reference provided by CDC for verifying where the markings should be. Though, as Perry notes, "just like a Gucci purse can be knocked off, someone with an inkjet printer can do the same with a TC number." Thus, for an extra step, there's a NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL) list you can cross-reference for authenticity as well as the NIOSH Trusted-Source webpage. There's also a CDC webpage where you can enter the specific TC approval number to confirm the authenticity of a mask or package of masks. But Perry says to keep in mind that someone could also print a TC number from a legitimate brand onto a knock-off mask. If the mask has decorative elements or the online ad uses words like "legitimate" and "genuine," this could be a red flag that it's not a true NIOSH-approved N95 mask.
NIOSH approval claims for KN95
NIOSH does not approve KN95 masks. Thus, if you find a KN95 mask that says it's NIOSH-approved, it is most likely a counterfeit. Instead, since KN95 masks were approved for use in Canada due to the scarcity of N95 masks, make sure it indicates the approval number (GB 2626-2006 or GB 2626-2019). Either of these numbers should be printed somewhere on the mask itself to confirm that it passed the required certifications in China.
Headband vs. ear loops
It might come as a surprise, but NIOSH-approved N95 masks do not have the ear loops that are commonly seen in masks. Rather, they have headbands that fit around the back of the head to secure them in place. This design helps to fully cover your mouth and nose without leaving gaps on the sides.
Fit and packaging checks
One of the simplest ways to verify if a mask is counterfeit is to see how it fits. If it is loose with gaps on the sides of your face, chances are it's a counterfeit. The packaging should be secure without evidence that it has been tampered with. Perry says you can have a higher level of confidence that an N95 is authentic by inspecting the outer packaging for the quality of the printing and graphics as well. "Spelling errors or lack of bilingual copy on the packaging is also something to look for. All N95s must include full instructions on how to wear the mask properly. Instructions can be on the outside of the box or can be with an included insert."
False claims and low prices
False claims are a clear indicator that the manufacturer or retailer is likely not to be trusted. Cost can also be a good indicator: if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Conversely, if a mask that claims to be N95 is being sold at a significant premium over others, it's important to question why.
The Government of Canada has a continually updated list of counterfeit masks it has identified and that have been recalled or for which a safety alert via public advisory has been issued. Some include counterfeit masks spoofing reputable brand names like 3M. If you're unsure about a particular mask, visit this page to see if it pops up on the list so you can avoid buying it. If you believe you have purchased a counterfeit N95 or KN95 mask, you can also report it via a Health Product Complaint to the Government of Canada.
Do N95 and KN95 masks exist for kids?
As noted, NIOSH does not approve N95 masks for kids, therefore, if a mask suggests that it's N95 for kids, it's counterfeit.
You can, however, find authentic KN95 masks that are small enough to fit a small child's face. Consider looking for this option from the same reputable brand that makes the N95 or KN95 mask you have your eye on. Or double-check for the same standard codes that would be found on larger KN95 masks.
Where to buy real N95 and KN95 masks in Canada
The best way to find real N95 and KN95 masks is to stick with trusted retailers. There are also smaller local providers with good reputations that have been cited as being trustworthy by a variety of reputable sources.
Perry suggests sticking with trusted medical suppliers that supply hospitals, medical clinics, or the dental market. (NIOSH-approved masks are also sold by industrial distributors specializing in Workplace Health & Safety compliance). "Contact a recognized manufacturer to ask which companies are authorized to distribute and sell its products in your area," he adds. "Even if they are out of stock, they might have a vetted generic alternative."
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