What face mask should you be wearing? Mask confusion cleared up by health experts

Two years into this pandemic, there’s likely a collection of different masks in every household. However, some may be searching for more KN95 and N95 masks after the CDC began a move this week toward recommending only those masks be used. The CDC then walked those comments back. 

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"The best mask that you can, that you wear is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long," the CDC’s Dr. Rochelle Walensky was recently quoted as saying. 

There’s still a great deal of confusion and now concern around the guidance of masks, especially as more school districts are starting to disseminate KN95 masks to their students, teachers and staff. 

A Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Senior Scholar, Dr. Amesh Adalja, tells FOX 5 the KN95 and N95 masks are essentially the same thing as both are considered respirators. However, one is a Chinese version with its own safety standard. The N95 mask is the American version, which would include a "NIOSH" stamp on the mask, identifying that it meets National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Standards. 

The CDC says there are international standards for KN95 masks and warns about 60% of KN95 respirators are fake or counterfeit. Dr. Adalja told FOX 5 it’s hard for even him to point out a counterfeit.

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"I do think it does pose a danger because if somebody is wearing a mask they think provides a higher level of protection than it does, they may engage in high-risk activities thinking they have a higher level of protection," said Dr. Amesh Adalja.  

You also have to make sure masks are fitted properly and stronger, and certified masks can get costly.  

FOX 5 did hear concerns from Montgomery County parents who believe KN95 masks, that were supposed to have gone out to MCPS teachers and students this week, are fake.

The CDC said in 2020 the manufacturer’s GB2626-2006 labeling on some mask packaging indicates that while it’s a nonmedical mask, the labeling would indicate it meets the Chinese standard for Respiratory Protective Equipment.

Some of those parents are pointing to a Boston Globe article reporting on what appear to be the same masks disseminated in Massachusetts. The article identifies the masks as less protective – and notes the manufacture lost FDA approval in 2020. Read the CDC's response here.

One parent told FOX 5 they did send the masks out to be privately reviewed to determine their percentage of effectiveness.  

READ MORE: Maryland to distribute 20 million free N95 and KN95 masks to residents

MCPS told FOX 5 earlier this week the masks are appropriate. MCPS Spokesperson Chris Cram emailed this response:

"KN95 masks for MCPS distribution are being evaluated as face coverings or masks, not as respirators. Face coverings function as source control, reducing the release of respiratory emissions from the wearer into the environment. Face coverings can provide limited protection for the wearer, but there are no applicable approvals or certifications from NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) or other regulatory agencies. KN95 masks are considered acceptable if they contain multiple layers of material, show sturdy construction, appear designed for good fitment and comfort, and do not present any safety/health hazards."

Dr. Adalja cannot speak to MCPS. He did explain with kids or adults, some of the strongest masks don’t really help if you have to keep taking it off inside because you can’t breathe  

"There’s a lot of emphasis on respirators like KN95 masks, N95s and KF94’s, but I think it’s really important to make sure that people wear the mask correctly. If you’re wearing one of those high filtration masks and can’t wear it, it’s not really going to do much use. And also remember that masks are more about risk preferences for people at this point because if you’re fully vaccinated, any infection you’re likely to get is likely to be mild. And I think it’s important for people to have off-ramps for when they want to wear masks," the senior scholar said. 


The CDC does outline federal guidelines for safer cloth, KN95 or N95 masks here