Why N95 masks offer the best protection against Covid and other illnesses (2024)

If you’re concerned about spiking COVID cases, you may be looking to restock your supply of face masks (and at-home COVID tests). For the highest level of protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing properly fitted respirators, including N95s approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

To learn more about N95 masks, I consulted medical experts about who should use them, when to wear them and how they're different from KN95 masks and other disposable face coverings. I also compiled highly rated N95 masks that are approved for use by NIOSH and available online. (Note that most people use “mask” and “respirator” interchangeably, but when the CDC and medical professionals say “respirator,” they specifically mean fitted face coverings with certified filtration, like N95s, KN95s and KF94s).

SKIP AHEAD How I picked the best N95 masks | The best N95 respirators to shop | How to shop for N95 masks

Selected.Our top picks

How I picked the best N95 masks

While shopping for N95 masks, experts recommend keeping the following in mind:

  • NIOSH approval: You should only purchase N95s listed on NIOSH’s list of approved models — they’ve undergone specific testing to meet NIOSH’s performance and quality requirements, which includes making sure they filter out at least 95% of very small particles (0.3 microns in size).
  • Appropriate markings: Specific markings on an N95 mask indicate that it’s NIOSH-approved. These markings include identifying information verified using NIOSH’s Certified Equipment List, filter designations, model numbers and more.
  • Features: N95 masks should have two straps that go around your head and an adjustable wire nose bridge. These features help ensure that the mask fits tightly against your face, experts told us.
The best N95 masks to purchase

There are dozens of N95s on NIOSH’s list of approved models, but some of them are surgical N95s, which should be reserved for medical workers, according to the CDC. Excluding those options, below I compiled the best N95 masks, which are available to shop online and meet NIOSH requirements, as well as expert-recommended criteria. Some N95s come packaged together, while others are individually wrapped.

3M Aura N95 Respirator

3M’s Aura N95 Respirator comes in a pack of three. It has a three-panel design and is foldable. The face covering is made to be low profile around the nose and eye area to accommodate glasses, and it has two head straps as well as an adjustable nose bridge. The respirators come individually packaged.

Shawmut Protex N95 Respirator

You can purchase Shawmut N95 respirators in a case of 10, 20, 40 and 240. The masks are built with a piece of foam that lines the inside of the adjustable nose piece, which the brand says helps reduce eyeglass fogging. The N95 respirators have two elastic head straps and come in small and medium/large sizes.

Honeywell N95 Flatfold Disposable Respirator

Honeywell’s N95s fold flat when they’re not in use. They have head straps and an adjustable nose clip with a foam cushion that the brand says helps create a tight seal against the face. Masks come in a pack of 20.

BNX N95 Mask

BNX N95 masks fold flat when they’re not in use and have two latex-free head straps. They come with an adjustable metal nose bridge and are available in a pack of 20.

Aidway NIOSH N95 Respirator

Aidway’s N95 mask offers five layers of protection and has a flat-fold design. It’s built with two elastic head straps as well as an adjustable nose piece. You purchase the masks in packs of 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 or 1,000.

DemeTECH N95 Respirator

DemeTECH’s N95 has a foldable design, meaning it folds flat when it’s not in use. The respirators are available in a pack of 20. They’re designed with five layers of material, an adjustable nose bridge and two head straps.

Kimberly-Clark Kimtech N95 Pouch Respirator

The pouch design of Kimberly-Clark Kimtech N95s creates a large breathing chamber, making it easier to talk while wearing the respirators, according to the brand. They’re built with two head straps and an adjustable nose bridge. The N95s come in a pack of 50.

WellBefore N95 Flat Fold Respirator

WellBefore’s N95 respirator offers four layers of protection and is available in a flat-fold design. It comes in white or black and is built with adjustable head straps and an adjustable nose piece. The N95s are individually wrapped and come in a 10-pack.

Breathe Healthy LifeMask NIOSH N95 Respirator

Breathe Healthy LifeMask NIOSH N95 Respirator$17.95

Breath Healthy’s flat-fold N95 mask comes with two wide elastic head straps and an adjustable nose piece. They come in a pack of 20 and are available in black and white.



selectIndoor air can be more polluted than outdoor.

How to buy N95 masks

Buying N95s is simpler than buying international respirators like KN95s or KF94s because they're regulated in the U.S. by NIOSH, says Dr. David Rempel, a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

When NIOSH gives an N95 its stamp of approval, it means “the respirator has met very specific requirements for testing. It is a quality assurance indicator that the respirator will perform as expected,” says Dr. Stella Hines, an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Medical experts told us that all N95s — whether they come in cup, flat fold or duckbill shapes — should have the following features:

  • Appropriate markings printed on the respirator indicating that it’s NIOSH-approved
  • Two straps that go around the head, which experts say are used instead of ear loops on all N95 models to create a tighter seal against the face
  • An adjustable wire nose bridge

You should not buy N95s that have exhaust ports, which holds true for all face masks, says Rempel. The CDC also states that “special N95 respirators labeled as ‘surgical’ or ‘medical’ should be prioritized for healthcare workers.”

Frequently asked questions

Regardless of the type of mask you wear, it won’t protect you or the people around you unless you wear it correctly. The CDC recommends making sure your mask completely covers your mouth and nose and fits tightly against your face to prevent gaps around the sides of the mask, nose and chin.

“N95 respirators will provide the regulated, expected level of protection to the wearer only if there is a good seal to the face,” says Hines. “You want a good seal so that all of the air that is breathed in is pulled in through the mask body. That is where all the filtration of particles and microbial contaminants occurs.”

You can do an at-home leak test with an N95 by putting it on and breathing out, says Rempel. If you can feel the air under your chin or around your eyes, it’s not tight enough. And if your glasses are fogging up while wearing an N95, there’s leakage and it’s not tight enough, says Hines.

All masks and models fit differently, and features like adjustable ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge help you improve the fit of your mask, as do mask fitters or braces, according to the CDC. Using a fitter or brace is especially a good idea for people with facial hair, which can make it difficult to achieve a tight fit.

No, you should not double-mask while wearing a N95 or KN95 mask, according to the CDC. You also should not wear respirators with exhalation valves or vents — this guidance applies to all masks.

In settings where workers are required to wear a N95, like some construction zones and healthcare settings, they must complete an official fit test , says Hines. The public, however, does not need to do a formal fit test before buying and wearing a N95. Regardless, you should still check to see if your respirator fits properly before wearing it in public, she says.

Technically, N95s are disposable, single-use face coverings. But if you remove and store a N95 properly, you can reuse it multiple times — simply put, that entails taking the mask off by its head straps and storing it in a paper or mesh fabric bag between uses, according to the CDC.

N95 manufacturers often provide instructions for the suggested length of use for their masks on the box or online. But in general, you should throw out your N95 if it gets damaged — crumpled up in your bag, for example — or if you can no longer achieve a tight seal to the face. You should also replace your N95 if it gets wet, dirty or contaminated.

N95 respirators are not intended for use by children and have not been broadly tested on them, according to the CDC. However, some brands offer N95s in small and large sizes, and smaller N95s may fit some children’s faces. Select brands make kids KN95s, too. When it comes to kids’ face coverings, it’s crucial to choose a well-fitting and comfortable option to reduce the chance of children removing it often or wearing it incorrectly, according to the CDC.

To recommend when Americans should wear face masks, the CDC determines an area’s Covid-19 Community Level risk on a scale of low, medium or high. To do so, it analyzes how many Covid-related hospital beds are in use, hospital admissions and the total number of new Covid cases in that area. Each Covid-19 Community Level corresponds to a masking recommendation — suggested precautions increase alongside the level. To determine your area’s Covid-19 Community Level, use the CDC's Covid-19 county check.

Experts have repeatedly stressed that masks help reduce the risk of COVID viral transmission. CDC studies have found that, between two properly masked or double-masked people, the risk of one giving the other a virus was cut by over 95%. Masking up also protects other people, as demonstrated in numerous studies like these gathered by the CDC.

Yes, N95 masks are eligible for reimbursem*nt with a flexible spending account (FSA), health savings account (HSA) or health reimbursem*nt arrangement (HRA). They are not eligible with a dependent care flexible spending account (DCFSA) or a limited-purpose flexible spending account (LPFSA).

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. David Rempel is a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he started its ergonomics program.
  • Dr. Stella Hines is an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She’s board-certified in occupational medicine, pulmonary medicine and internal medicine. Dr. Hines’ research interests include respiratory protection and pulmonary function and symptom analysis in occupational exposure groups.
Why trust NBC Select?

Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor at NBC Select who has covered face masks since 2020. She's written about disposable masks, KN95 masks, N95 masks and KN95 masks for kids, in addition to at-home Covid tests and vaccine card holders. For this article, Malin spoke to two experts about how to shop for N95 masks.

Catch up on NBC Select’s in-depth coverage of personal finance, tech and tools, wellness and more, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to stay up to date.

Zoe Malin

Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor for Select on NBC News.

Why N95 masks offer the best protection against Covid and other illnesses (2024)


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