How to Tell if Your Face Mask Is Real and Not a Counterfeit

Illustration of someone wearing a face mask.

solarseven / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Experts are recommending you opt for higher quality masks, such as KN95s and NIOSH-approved N95s.
  • Certain information must be printed on an N95 for it to be NIOSH-approved. 
  • There are some at-home tests you can do to examine the quality of your mask, though they aren't foolproof.

While news about COVID-19 is constantly in flux, one safety recommendation has remained steady: wear a face mask. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that any well-fitted mask will work, experts are urging the public to use higher quality masks, such as KN95s or NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)-approved N95s.

N95 masks are so highly recommended partially because they undergo a rigorous process of medical evaluations and fit testing. Even more, the NIOSH approves and certifies the masks, David M. Souleles, MPH, director of the University of California Irvine’s COVID-19 response team, told Verywell. 

While searching for masks may seem as easy as a Google or Amazon search, counterfeits run rampant, making it harder for people to determine whether a mask is NIOSH-approved. Here's how to make sure you've got a high-quality mask.

What This Means For You

To check if an N95 mask is NIOSH approved, visit the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL) and enter your mask’s testing and certification approval number. If your mask does not appear under this list, this means that the approval number is invalid and the mask is not a NIOSH-approved respirator. 

How to Tell If My N95 Is NIOSH-Approved Or Counterfeit? 

One way to determine whether your N95 mask is a legit NIOSH-approved respirator is by searching for it on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL). From there, you can enter the mask’s testing and certification approval number (e.g., TC 84A-XXXX), which must be printed on the respirator, per the CDC’s guidelines.

If you search for a NIOSH approval number and no results appear within the CEL, this means that the approval number is invalid and the mask is not NIOSH approved.

All approved N95 masks should have the following information on the mask itself: 

  • Number of approval holder/manufacturer business name
  • Part number (this may be the model number)
  • NIOSH filter series and filter efficiency level (e.g., N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, etc) 
  • NIOSH testing and certification approval number (e.g., TC-84A-XXXX)
  • NIOSH in all capital block letters

Counterfeit masks have not undergone NIOSH testing and evaluation, and may not be capable of providing appropriate protection and filtration. Unfortunately, due to the high demand for N95 respirators, some masks are falsely marketed and sold as being approved by NIOSH. Before buying masks, the CDC urges users and manufacturers to check for counterfeit masks on the Counterfeit Respirators/Misrepresentation of NIOSH Approval webpage.

Additionally, NIOSH provides some signs your mask may be a counterfeit, including:

  • Does not include all the required label markings
  • NIOSH is spelled incorrectly
  • Has decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (like sequins)
  • Claims to be approved for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children)
  • The use of ear loops that do not use a fastener to connect them behind the head

KN95 masks are equivalent to N95s but are made in China. While there are currently no CDC or Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards for KN95s, the FDA offered emergency use authorizations (EUA) for certain KN95s at the beginning of the pandemic when N95s were in short supply. While those EUAs have since been revoked as supplies increased, the list is still a good place to start when trying to find good-quality KN95 masks.

How Can You Tell If Your Mask Works? 

Beyond the seal of approval from the NIOSH, people have been using tests to trial mask effectiveness, including for surgical and cloth masks.

One tool is a candle test, where people put on a mask and try to blow out a lit candle. If the candle can be blown out while the mask is worn, it’s a likely indication that aerosols can go through, according to Aaron E. Glatt, MD, MACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, chair of the department of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau.

“If you can blow out a candle, that means that’s a relatively flimsy mask, it’s going to be a single ply, and it basically has holes in it," Glatt told Verywell. "If your breath can go through it, that means something else can come in as well."

Another test, the light test, requires people to hold a mask to a light to see if it’s opaque. It’s hypothesized that the more transparent the mask is, the more likely it is that particles can squeeze through. 

While the candle test and other tests alike can demonstrate the quality of how some masks were made, their ability to test mask effectiveness should be taken with a grain of salt, Souleles said. 

“No test is foolproof, but one easy way to test the snugness of your mask is to try exhaling heavily; if your glasses fog up, the mask isn’t properly covering your nose,” Souleles told Verywell. "If you can fit your fingers through the sides, the mask isn’t secure to your face.” 

This sentiment was echoed by Glatt. “I think the candle test shows and demonstrates how poor some masks are," Glatt said. "But the fact that you can’t blow something out doesn’t mean that you’re safe."

To ensure that your mask is properly fitted, it “should completely cover the nose and mouth and be secured to the lead with ties, ear loops, or elastic bands that go behind the head,” Souleles recommended. 

Overall, “proper masking is key in preventing COVID-19 infection,” Souleles said. “Wearing any mask is better than no mask but the better quality the mask is and the better it fits, the more protection it will afford you...Proper masking and vaccination together offer the best protection against the virus.” 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of masks and respirators. Updated January 14, 2022.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NIOSH-approved N95 particulate filtering facepiece respirators. Updated January 7, 2022. 

  3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. How to tell if your N95 respirator is NIOSH approved. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. doi:10.26616/NIOSHPUB2021124

  4. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. How to tell if your N95 respirator is NIOSH approved. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. doi:10.26616/NIOSHPUB2021124

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.