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Tips for safely buying KN95 and N95 masks

As interest in KN95 masks rises, prices on some brands are going up. KING 5 spoke with medical and consumer experts about what the public should keep in mind.

SEATTLE — With high rates of omicron transmission, some doctors are recommending that people switch to higher-grade masks. 

That also means navigating how masks are different, which masks to choose, and how to find masks that work effectively but are still affordable.

"We're trying to get people away from a simple cloth mask or these bandanas that we see," said Dr. Francis Riedo, EvergreenHealth Medical director of infection control and prevention. "They're just not extremely effective, both for preventing transmission or preventing you from getting infected. A multiple-layer cloth mask is a little better, but really you should move up to the next level, whether it's a surgical or procedural mask, or if you can find it, a KN95, or ideally or optimally a fit-tested N95. That's a procedure mostly limited to health care workers, but if you're in a situation that you can accomplish that, that's what you should do."

What's the difference between cloth, KN95 and N95 masks?

Riedo described the differences in types of masks that impact how they work and what they're able to filter out.

"The masking really refers to how many particles are filtered out," Riedo said. "You start at the very lowest end, which is the simple layer of cloth, which will filter out some particles, whether it's smoke or virus, but it's really very limited. If you get into multiple layers of a cloth mask you have a little more filtration, but it's not until you really get to surgical level masks that you derive some benefit. It's both a mechanical filtration as well as an electrostatic component to it that helps. 

"And as you move up the chain, things become more and more effective at filtering out because of closer, smaller openings for particles to get through, charges and so forth. You get into KN95s, which is a type of N95 that's approved in China by their standards, to N95s, which are approved by United States standards, which is sort of the upper-end, and then you get into full face masks."

RELATED: Yes, you can clean and reuse your KN95 or N95 mask using a brown paper bag

How can I tell if my KN95 or N95 mask is legit?

As more people seek to buy KN95 and N95 masks, it's important to take the time to ensure one is buying from a reputable seller.

"There are a lot of funny websites out there with fake contact information, with fake claims, and a lot of time consumers will make purchases off these websites and at times will receive a counterfeit product that looks nothing like what they purchased," Better Business Bureau for the State of Washington Public Relations and Communications Manager Logan Hickle said. "They may be purchasing a KN95 mask from this website but instead they get something completely standard in terms of a face mask you see every day, and then also a lot of reports of consumers buying items off these funny websites and never receiving a product at all, and not being able to reach out to or get in contact with that company again."

Hickle recommends ensuring a manufacturer has verifiable contact information and actually calling the number or sending a message to the listed email address. 

If the customer orders an item and does not receive it, Hickle says to contact the financial institution with which they purchased the items and report it in case they fall victim to a data breach.

"At the BBB we always encourage consumers to purchase with a credit card rather than other forms of payment," Hickle said. "When you purchase with a credit card, the consumer is much more likely to get their money back when they encounter a scam.

"If you encounter any scams, especially regarding coronavirus, we encourage you to report it to the BBB scam tracker. That way we can take a look at that information and it's also publicly available for the public. You can also report it to the Attorney General's Office as well, and then if you do notice price gouging out on the market, you can go to BBB.org/adtruth and report price gouging there, so we can investigate that."

For KN95 masks specifically, Hickle says to review Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance about what to check before buying.

RELATED: Upgrading your mask? Here’s how to make sure you’re spending your money on an authentic respirator

In addition to masking, Riedo said it's important to continue the full range of prevention techniques in order to maximize protection. 

"We know masks work," Riedo said. "Better masks work better. They're more efficient at preventing transmission and preventing you from getting infected. But masking is just one part of a multi-layered process to try to prevent transmission and prevent infection. And that starts with vaccination, but it also includes being in well-ventilated areas. So if you're planning to have a small get-together, have it in the best ventilated area that you can, be that a patio, if it's cold outside, maybe a bigger room that you can open a window and get that air flowing through. 

"The virus doesn't live very long outside a moist environment, and I think it's incumbent that we make sure people understand: vaccines work, masks work, ventilation works, physical distancing works, and if you employ all of those layers, you will decrease your risk of transmission, of being infected."

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