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Where's the Money: How to avoid buying fake N95, KN95 masks

Simple shopping tips can help make sure you're getting genuine masks.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The CDC is now recommending people wear either an N95 or KN95 mask in order to prevent the transmission of the omicron variant. Experts warn that this variant is more transmissible than other variants, so masking up with the right kind of face covering is important.

"It prevents not only you from spreading the virus, but also prevents you from becoming infected from omicron," said vascular cardiologist Dr. Bernard Ashby.

But here's an important question to ask when buying these masks: are you getting the real deal?

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"It's an incredibly difficult market for consumers to navigate," said Kelly Carothers, the government affairs director for Project N95. "There are hundreds of millions of these masks on the market in America right now that have no oversight. It's very dangerous."

In fact, the CDC warns about 60% of all N95 or KN95 masks currently on the market are counterfeit. But there is good news: there's several steps you can take to make sure you're getting real ones.

The first way to peter out which masks are real or not is seeing who approves the masks; remember that the US approves N95 masks, while China approves KN95 masks. N95 masks have to be approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), so if you're buying an N95 mask, check for that approval and make sure the acronym is spelled right.

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However, if you're grabbing a KN95 mask and see the NIOSH label, put it down; NIOSH does not approve those since China does that. Remember that N95 masks are the only ones NIOSH approves, and they have a list of companies online trying this trick to help guide you away from them. Aaron Collins, an aerosol engineer who has taken an interest in how masks are made, confirms you can't tell if all masks are good to go just by looking at them.

"As a consumer, it's impossible to tell by looking at a respirator whether it's a performing respirator or not," he said. "They look identical."

But there is another way to tell if either an N95 or KN95 mask is legitimate: it can't have decorative fabric or other add-ons. If it does, it's counterfeit.

Another telltale sign specifically for N95 masks is the kind of loops it has on it. If it has ear loops, don't get it. N95 masks only use headbands.

Finally, both N95 and KN95 masks can be re-used for several days with proper care. Here is how it can be safely done.

Contact Carolyn Bruck at cbruck@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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