April 13, 2020

Detecting Counterfeit Coronavirus Masks

Some essential advice on masks and how to detect counterfeits.
Steven Toews
coronavirus masks

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued new guidance on the use of face coverings to control the spread of Covid-19. The new guidance includes a recommendation of “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

The new recommendations specifically indicate that surgical masks and N95 respirators should not be used as they are to be reserved for medical workers and frontline healthcare staff. Nevertheless, many people now have surgical masks in their possession and are using them in place of cloth face coverings when they go out in public.

But how can you know if the mask you have is legitimate or counterfeit? And how does a surgical mask differ from an N95 respirator or a homemade face covering? Continue reading below to find out

Coronavirus Mask Advice

  • Proper Fitting

Some masks, and we’re referring specifically to the N95 respirators, need to be properly fitted to the wearer’s face in order to be effective. A lack of proper fitting (or a lack of proper use) renders the entire mask ineffective against the coronavirus.

  • Nose & Mouth

All masks, including N95 respirators, surgical masks, and cloth face coverings, should be worn over the nose and mouth. Regardless of whether you’re wearing your mask to prevent spreading Covid-19 (as you might with a surgical mask or a cloth face covering) or to prevent contracting Covid-19 (as you would with an N95 respirator), leaving your nose uncovered renders the mask much less effective.

  • Not a Substitute for Other Preventive Measures

Masks are not a substitute for physical distancing and handwashing. Masks merely act as an adjunct to other effective means of preventing the spread of the virus.

  • Mask Hygiene

Proper mask hygiene is an important part of wearing a mask. Don’t touch the fabric part of the face-covering or mask at any time. In order to take the mask off, use the ear loops. Refrain from re-using masks if at all possible and, if you must re-use them, try to clean and disinfect them between uses.

Different Kinds of Coronavirus Masks

A number of different kinds of coronavirus masks are currently being used around the world. These masks were used before the spread of Covid-19 and will be used afterward but are in particularly high demand during the pandemic.

  • N95 Respirators

N95 respirators are the only masks that reliably prevent the contraction of Covid-19 when properly used. They block 95% of particles larger than 0.3 microns (like the respiratory droplets that carry the novel coronavirus).

If you’re not a medical professional, don’t use these. They are in short supply and, whenever possible, should be donated in their original packaging to a medical facility.

  • Surgical Masks

Surgical masks, also known as procedure or medical masks, are the paper-like masks popularly associated with doctors and nurses. These too are in short supply in some areas so don’t waste them on yourself if there are medical personnel nearby who need them.

They block 60% to 80% of large particles and are primarily effective for preventing the outgoing spread of Covid-19. In other words, they reduce the spread of the virus by reducing the amount of virus spread to others by the mask wearer.

  • Cloth Face Coverings

Cloth face coverings are homemade face coverings made of a breathable cloth that goes over the nose and mouth. Bandanas, scarves, and homemade masks can all fit the bill. They too reduce the spread by the wearer of Covid-19 when used properly.

Counterfeit Masks

Both N95 masks and surgical masks are required to maintain certain regulatory and certification standards in order to bear the labels popularly associated with efficacy. In order to be branded as an “N95” mask, a mask must be certified by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Surgical masks must be manufactured in a particular way in order to meet Chinese, EU, or US criteria under the following standards:

USASTM2100 (American Society for Testing and Materials) Standard Specification for Performance of Materials Used in Medical Face Masks
EUBS EN 14683:2019 – Medical face masks. Requirements and test methods
CHINAGB 19083-2010 Technical Requirements for Protective Face Mask for Medical Use, YY 0469-2011 Surgical Masks

Masks failing to meet these regulatory standards may not be effective in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Recent investigations reveal the manufacture of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit N95 and surgical masks.

Detecting Counterfeit Masks

coronavirus masks

There are a number of steps you can take to ensure the authenticity of a medical or surgical mask.

  • Sourcing

The best and most obvious way to ensure the masks you’re getting are “real” is to pay careful attention to the source of the masks. Do everything in your power to stick to reputable, preferably domestic, manufacturers. If the source seems sketchy, move along.

  • Regulatory Compliance

Ensure the masks you’re purchasing meet regulatory standards by checking them against the relevant manufacturing criteria listed in the previous section. But be warned. Counterfeit masks may claim to meet these standards even when they don’t. That’s what makes them counterfeit.

  • Physical Construction

Surgical masks are usually constructed in three layers: a layer of melt-blown polymer between two layers of non-woven fabric. If you take the mask apart you should see a filter-like layer in the middle of two fabric layers. If you don’t see that sort of construction, take a closer look at your masks.

  • Waterproof

The non-woven fabric layers should be waterproof. So, put a few drops of water on them and see if they resist moisture.

  • The Fire Test

According to this mask article on Medium, the middle layer of the mask (the one that’s made of polymer) should be fireproof. So take a lighter to it and see if it goes up in smoke. If it does, that might be an indication that you’ve got a defective mask.

  • Recalls

Keep an eye on the internet to watch for any product recalls or counterfeit warnings that refer to the products you’ve purchased.

Keep in mind that a physical inspection may not reveal more subtle defects that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Your best bet is to combine a visual scan with good sourcing and product research.

Final Thoughts

The coronavirus mask market is currently a minefield of shady tactics, price gouging, and counterfeit products. Be careful to purchase only products that come from reliable sources and are not the subject of recalls or consumer agency warnings. There’s no sense in going to the trouble of buying masks only to risk buying counterfeit products.

Here at Fulfyld, we’ve partnered with local governments to bring in more shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE). Our program, called PUR PPE, will hopefully help our medical professionals, first responders, and other frontline workers get their jobs done safely and effectively. As always, a huge thank you to those folks for putting their safety and security on the line just to help us out!


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