(USA) N95 masks are available on Amazon

by Wei_Dai1 min read18th Jan 202121 comments

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Covid-19Practical
Personal Blog

My family has been relying on a supply of off brand "procedure masks" that I got at the start of the pandemic, and many of my neighbors are still wearing cloth masks. After reading "A good supply of KN95 masks is available from China, with many supermarkets and pharmacies now selling them for a couple of dollars each." in Why Aren’t We Wearing Better Masks? I decided to try to buy some of these, but then found something apparently even better: N95 masks of a new design made by a reputable American company, currently available on (and sold directly by) Amazon at a very reasonable price (even cheaper than most KN95 masks). Here's a Rolling Stone article I found that goes into the design/features of this mask.

(I also bought a full face mask/respirator along with a pair of 3M P100 filters, in case I have to go into some really high risk environments.)

Edit: Added a "USA" tag to the post title. Also, in case it's not clear, I emphasized brand in this post because "Tragically, America is swamped with fraudulent medical-grade masks, some of which are only 1 percent effective." according to Why Aren’t We Wearing Better Masks?.

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We started a site to make N95s available (aiden.health) because it's been our belief since March that N95s/respirators are the only masks that really work, and everyone should have access to them when we're in the midst of a public health (e.g. everyone health) crisis. 

I've found the muddled advice regarding masking to be quite confounding, and the refusal of retailers to sell N95s to also be counter to the public interest.

Quite simply, masks need to fit, filter, and also be breathable. Filtering vs. breathability is the real design challenge with masks (theoretically speaking, plastic wrap is 100% filtering! The only problem is that it's 0% breathable). And it's been solved pretty well for 20 years with the N95. 

Cloth masks filter 30-50% and they may or may not fit well. 3ply surgical masks are made of material that filters really well, but it has air gaps on all sides. Both are fine if you're in a socially distanced setting, say going for a walk outdoors.

But neither works if you're, say, on a plane packed next to strangers for hours on end.

The recent double masking advice is also a head scratcher.... why not just get an N95? It fits (what the cloth mask in the mask stack is supposed to do) and filters (3ply mask role), and is more breathable and comfortable so you might actually wear it for longer.

The sentiment around price gouging on N95s is also an interesting one. N95s typically have a 25-30% margin for a mask that works. Cloth masks don't really work, they cost less than $1 to make and land, and sell for anywhere between $2 and $30 - so anywhere from a 100-3000% margin for a product that may be fashionable, but ineffective. Curious.

You seem pretty knowledgeable in this area. Any thoughts on the mask that is linked to in my post, the Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator? (I noticed that it's being sold by Amazon at 1/3 the price of the least expensive N95 mask on your site.)

Thanks - this is super helpful! Wanted to quickly mention in case helpful for calibration - higher quality protection equipment has been available for quite some time given sufficiently dedicated searching; full face respirators were available on Amazon near the beginning of the pandemic; N95 masks and P100 filter cartridges have been reliably available via eBay.

This post is awesome info as arrival time and price are both superior to pre-existing options, but just wanted to mention the above as an update-point: if folks truly believed that this PPE was not purchasable (albeit at a higher price point previously), might be worth updating in the direction of "most things can be purchased on the internet."

I never quite got these questions answered and I guess this would be a good place to ask: what is the difference between KN95 and N95?

My understanding is it's about the shape/fit of the mask rather than the filter. If so, is N95 better fitting? Always/usually, or does it depend?

De jure: KN95 is regulated by China. N95 the US. On paper, all the technical specs are basically the same.

De facto: KN95s are nearly all earloop + folded mask body. N95 is all headband because the CDC thinks earloops are unlikely to fit properly (and therefore filter properly), and has a variety of cup and folded mask bodies.

Also critical to know - but invisible - the N95 standard is much more rigorous on ongoing quality control. With KN95, you can theoretically do things like get your buddy to give you a passing test report, swap out materials, skimp on your production process, and probably get away with it. Much harder to do with N95. Therefore, most people trust N95 more because it's a more comprehensively maintained regulation. The quality distribution of KN95 is therefore much wider than N95 - so there are some great KN95s out there. There's also some garbage product.

Lastly, neither standard regulates the finer points of mask design, like making sure the inside liner is soft and comfortable against your face. That's not one of the technical criteria, but is certainly something you'll care about in hour 3 of wearing your mask on a plane! 

More info here - https://aiden.health/blogs/resources/kn95-n95

That's great to know, thanks!

In practice the big difference is that KN95 masks generally have ear loops, while N95 masks have straps that go around the back of your head which makes them fit tighter and seal better against your face. Traditional N95 masks (but not the duckbill type discussed here) also have more structure and are less flexible, which might help with fit depending on your face shape.

That's what I suspected but it's great to get it reinforced. Thanks!

To support/add-to what ErickBall wrote, my own personal experience with respirators is that one with headbands (rather than ear loops) and a nose clip + nose foam is more likely to seal well.

Effects of Sterilization With Hydrogen Peroxide and Chlorine Dioxide on the Filtration Efficiency of N95, KN95, and Surgical Face Masks (JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Jun; 3(6): e2012099.) says:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed KN95 masks (the Chinese version of the N95) as suitable alternatives to N95s when N95s are not available. 

Figure 1 indicates that a KN95 mask has similar filtration efficiency as a N95 when new. However, it acts differently (larger variation) after H2O2 sterilization and becomes very inefficient after ClO2 sterilization.

So N95 isn't as negatively effected after these types of sterilizations? Any comments on whether N95 is more practical/appropriate for everyday people?

I am tempted to go N95 or FFP2 since the new variant is spreading quickly in my country.

It may also mean having to shave my beard off...

You could try medical tape and see if you can seal the mask with it, without shaving your beard.

Tragically, America is swamped with fraudulent medical-grade masks

Probably happens everywhere. The business opportunity is too good to miss.

My wife recently ordered online a few sets of masks from different producers. Some of them seem good, some of them... you could feel how the air flows completely freely around the edges of the mask.

I think it's worth checking whether the manufacture's website supports some verification procedure (in which the customer types in some unique code that appears on the respirator). Consider googling the term: [manufacturer name] validation.

(example)

Thanks! My family back home has just been wearing surgical masks and they ordered a box of 50 of these :)

How can we be sure they're not counterfeit? 

Look for authorized distributors. Unfortunately there's been an issue with counterfeit product being sold at the largest retailers .... 

Thanks for sharing this. What do you make of the many reviews saying this fits poorly? There are certainly lots of favorable reviews, but negative reviews make me reluctant to plunk down $50+ for a 50-pack.

FWIW, while I evaluate that I'm going with the Powecom masks, which are well-reviewed KN95 on the FDA's EUA list https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B087M2T7NP/ref=ox_sc_act_title_3?smid=A3EYD1ZWL7OQ1F&psc=1, and available in a much smaller quantity so I can check fit before buying a large number.

I just got mine today and they seem solid. Details from my Amazon review: 

They came back as authentic, and the verification procedure seems to guard against counterfeits (details below). For me, they fit snugly and comfortably, but I probably have a slightly smaller face than the average man. I do notice some fogging of my glasses, but I don't think there are any widely available masks that avoid this currently (I should probably use surgical tape to get around that?). My ears do stick out in a silly way, but it's not uncomfortable.

I see that the CDC NPPTL lists Powecom masks as having a filter efficiency of ~98% (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/respirators/testing/NonNIOSHresults.html, expand the section "Respirator Assessment Results" -- see for example https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/respirators/testing/results/MTT-2020-211.1_International_GuangzhouPowecomi_KN95-Earloop-Style_TestReport_Redacted-508.pdf, which matches the packaging I got). They do offer a bunch of caveats that these have not gone through the the NIOSH respirator approval process N95s go through, and note that ear loop designs make it harder to achieve a proper fit. So that is a potential drawback, and it's on the wearer to make sure they fit you appropriately, but this is probably the best we're going to get with a shortage of true N95s.

The authenticity verification procedure seems legit. It is as follows:
- You scratch off a coating on the label on the outside of the package (so you don't need to open it to verify) and enter the number on Powecom's website (http://www.powecom.com/index.html - click the "anti-fake check" link on the right on the navigation bar near the top of the page).
- You type in the verification number.
- If you type in a non-authentic number, it seems to give you the message, "Error with security numbers."
- If you type in an authentic number, it says the product is verified.
- If you type in an authentic number again, it gives you a message saying how many times the number was previously checked, and what the first time was. This gives me confidence that a counterfeiter isn't just buying a real package and then printing the same number on counterfeit packages.

Given the available statistics, I'm a bit surprised at the amount of concern you seemingly place on you or your family contracting the virus. It seems as though death is very improbable if you are otherwise well and relatively young. Are potential long term health consequences more of the concern? Are you worried about infecting someone else who is more high-risk? Curious as to your thinking. I respect your insights in general and I'm not very concerned so I'm wondering if I should be thinking about this differently.

There are a few people in my social network experiencing "long covid" who were otherwise healthy and young. I think some of the unknowns there provide more than enough reason to take low-cost precautions like getting and wearing masks.

The long term symptoms aren't being talked about much because lots of people are still dying, but also because most of the infections are still really recent so we don't have much data on the long-term.