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Finding reliable masks online can be tricky. Here are tips that can help.

As the omicron variant spreads, some governments, schools and offices are recommending mask use again

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)
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We have (understandably) grown weary of life in a pandemic, but the rise of a new coronavirus variant means a return to life as usual isn’t possible for many yet. Instead, the highly contagious omicron variant has caused the number of cases in the United States to shoot through the roof since late December.

While the volume of new cases is stretching some hospitals to the limit, deaths and serious hospitalizations haven’t risen as dramatically. And on January 4, President Biden said people who have been vaccinated should be “concerned” about the omicron variant, but urged them not to be “alarmed.” (People who haven’t been vaccinated should be at least a little more concerned.)

For now, there’s not much people like us can do but wait to see what kind of an impact omicron will have on us and our health care systems. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we should be doing anyway. Just like we’ve heard for the past year, wearing a mask can be an effective way to slow the spread of the coronavirus — whether your local government mandates it or not. The problem is that while masks are much easier to come by than they were in the earliest days of the pandemic, reliably restocking your supply can still be trickier than it needs to be.

If you’re planning to do your mask shopping online, here are a few best practices you should keep in mind.

What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

Keep an eye out for fakes

Counterfeit masks continue to pose problems for people — and organizations — trying to build up a supply of reliable masks. Last August, Homeland Security Investigations agents in Chicago intercepted a shipment of more than 400,000 fake N95 masks before they could be distributed. So, what can you do to avoid these dodgy options?

To start, the CDC has some helpful tips.

If you’re shopping in a sprawling online marketplace, be wary of listings that specifically refer to themselves as being “legitimate” or “genuine,” and keep tabs on prices — big fluctuations or curiously good deals could be a sign of something fishy. And if you’re looking at products from independent online mask retailers, be sure to check for typos, broken links and strange-looking URLs, as these could be signs you’re actually looking at a fly-by-night operation. (You can find the full list of CDC recommendations here.)

Masks and covid-19: Explaining the latest guidance from the CDC and other experts

Despite some serious sleuthing, it’s not impossible for fake masks to slip through the cracks and land on your doorstep. Thankfully, some maskmakers offer tools to help you confirm your purchases are the real deal.

3M, which makes enough masks and respirators to warrant its own full page in the list of options approved by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, has a handy tool to help verify at least some of its N95s. If you own, or recently bought one of the mask models listed here, you can plug in a few codes found on the packaging into 3M’s online verification tool and determine whether your masks are legitimate.

Meanwhile, Aegle, a producer of NIOSH-approved N95 masks in Brookshire, Tex., takes a more sophisticated approach. Whether you buy Aegle masks from marketplaces such as Amazon or directly from the manufacturer, each package comes with a tiny chip called an NFC (short for near-field communication) tag built into the box. You don’t need any additional gear to read these tags — most modern smartphones have NFC reading abilities built into them. Just touch your smartphone to the box, and its Web browser will open, showing you the filtration test results of masks from the lot yours came from.

“If I have to share this [information] with the government body, then why shouldn’t the end user have the same ability,” said Thomas Lopez, Aegle’s chief technical officer.

Expand your search

For many people, their search for masks begins and ends on Amazon. While you can certainly find reliable options there, it’s always worth looking at other reputable retailers. (Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

If you’ve decided that you want to wear N95 masks, try checking online outposts of major hardware store chains — Home Depot and Grainger offer a fairly wide selection and in some cases allow you to swing by a physical store to pick up your order. (Of the two, Grainger also has the easiest stock assortment to view at a glance.) There’s one more upside to purchasing your masks from a physical store, or doing an in-store pickup: returning them for a refund can be much more convenient. That said, each retail chain’s return policy is a little different, so be sure to read the fine print before anything else.

Why some experts recommend upgrading to N95 masks to help fight the delta variant

It’s also a good idea to buy masks directly from the companies that produce them, but that doesn’t always work for individuals — the minimum order size can be too high to justify an order. In cases like those, consider checking out the nonprofit Project N95, which sources masks from verified suppliers and breaks down bulk orders into smaller packages that make more sense for household purchases. And despite what the organization’s name might suggest, it doesn’t just sell standard N95 masks — it also sells well-reputed surgical and KN95 masks. We’ve also had good luck with Aegle’s N95 cup and foldable masks, and the company offers a 30-day return policy if they fall short of your fit standards.

When N95 mask supplies were constrained earlier in the pandemic, KN95 emerged as viable alternatives. These masks, primarily made in China, can offer levels of protection similar to standard N95 masks when worn correctly. KF94 masks are also solid options for daily use, and at least one small-scale study suggests they’re as effective as N95 masks in preventing the virus from spreading. To ensure these masks work as well as they’re intended to, look for KF94s that were manufactured in South Korea.

And what about cloth masks? They’re extremely common, but many experts say they won’t do much to stem covid’s spread by themselves. A double-mask combination with a cloth covering over a surgical mask is better, but if you have the means, an N95 respirator should offer the best protection, say health experts.

As new variants of the coronavirus spread within the United States, health professionals have suggested that Americans wear two masks. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Read those reviews

No matter where your mask search begins, remember to take a few minutes to look through the reviews attached to each mask’s sales listing — especially the negative ones. This might sound like a no-brainer, but many people have been in your position and have already taken the plunge on products, only to find they didn’t live up to their expectations.

Apart from the materials masks are made of, the way they fit might be the important factor to pay attention to. You could always buy a few packs and try them out for yourself, but reviews from other people can be helpful in checking whether a mask you’re interested in fits snugly and comfortably. (And for those of you wearing glasses, poring over these reviews is a great way to find out if the masks you want will have you peering through a thin layer of fog all day.)

In some cases, reviewers might have even spotted potentially counterfeit masks. In one Amazon product listing we reviewed, a pack of 20 3M N95 respirators had garnered a cumulative rating of 4.4 stars, which sounds reasonable enough. But a quick look at the reviews revealed a series of older 1-star reviews that slammed the masks for their poor build quality, prompting some to believe they had inadvertently purchased a pack of fakes.

Join a community

For many people, getting a fresh shipment in the mail will be the last time they think about their masks — until the next time they need to resupply, at least. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you frequently spend a lot of time around people whose vaccination status can’t easily be determined, it might be worth joining one of a number of growing communities devoted to sharing their experiences with the masks they’ve used.

The most immediately helpful we’ve seen so far is r/Masks4All, a Reddit group with more than 15,000 members, some of whom respond to requests for advice almost immediately. In some ways, you can think of communities like this one as an outgrowth of the reviews section on most mask listings in online stores — these are people who have bought and lived with different masks, and who aren’t afraid to share what they’ve learned.

More importantly, the subreddit could be a helpful sounding board for people trying to find answers to very specific questions — like the college professor in Florida asking for advice on masks that would be well-suited to lecturing in-person with microphones.

Daily mask wear comes with a slew of irritations and annoyances. Here are solutions for mask acne, ear pain and fogged up glasses. (Video: John Farrell, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Another social media community has started to blossom around Aaron Collins — a.k.a. the Mask Nerd — and his YouTube videos. A mechanical engineer by trade, the Minnesota resident has made a name for himself by testing masks in his home to see if they are effective as they claim to be. (For what it’s worth, Project N95′s executive director Anne Miller vouches for his results, claiming they’re “pretty solid” for someone who doesn’t have “a $100,000 test rig in his operation.”)

Tara Cole, a writer based in Minneapolis, had never heard of Collins before discovering an earlier version of what might be his biggest project: a Google spreadsheet outlining the filtration efficiency of nearly 300 masks. She had previously bought KN95 masks she suspected might be counterfeits and stopped using them after she couldn’t find listings in Collins’s database.

“I’ve got a growing pile of masks that I don’t trust for virus protection but will probably meet my crafting project needs for the next 20 years,” she said.

It’s always worth taking other people’s online observations with a grain of salt, but if nothing else, communities like these could be a great resource for people who don’t even know where to start with masks.

Don’t sweat those ‘smart’ masks

We’ve seen a slew of high-tech “smart” masks popping up since the beginning of the pandemic.

Some claim to send “real-time protection levels” to your smartphone via Bluetooth, others have built-in wireless ear buds, and at least one concept blends air filtration with an amplifier for your voice. These could be worth a splurge if you’re a serious gadget fan, but even well-known companies that dabble in masks don’t always get things right.

Consider Razer, a company that makes popular PC accessories like keyboards and mice for gamers. When it launched its flashy Zephyr mask last year, the company said Zephyr used “N95 grade” filters to help keep wearers safe. Recently, though, the company has had to walk those claims back, and now mentions in a (tiny) clarification on its website that “Razer Zephyr is not a certified N95 mask, medical device, respirator, surgical mask or personal protective equipment (PPE) and is not meant to be used on medical or clinical settings.”

“While the filters used in the Razer Zephyr Wearable Air Purifier have been tested for 95% Particulate Filtration Efficiency (PFE) and 99% Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE), per the statements on the website and documentation for the product, the wearable by itself is not a medical device nor certified as an N95 mask,” the company said in a statement. “To avoid any confusion, we are in the process of removing all references to “N95 Grade Filter” from our marketing material. We will also directly reach out shortly to existing customers to clarify.”

Our advice? You can skip just about all of these smart masks, at least for now. Instead, the most practical thing to do is focus on finding masks like N95s and KN95s that offer high levels of air filtration that actually fit well on your mouth and nose.

“That’s the thing that consumers need to look for,” said Miller of Project N95. “If you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to wear it. And it has to fit. If it doesn’t fit, you’re going to have leaks, and that’s not going to give you any benefit.”