If you’re concerned about spiking COVID cases, restocking your supply of face masks (and at-home COVID tests) might be a top priority. For the highest level of protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing properly fitted respirators, including N95s approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
To learn more about N95 masks, we consulted medical experts about who should use them, when to wear them and how they’re different from KN95 masks and other disposable face coverings. We also compiled highly rated N95 masks that are approved for use by NIOSH and available online. (Note that most people use “mask” and “respirator” interchangeably, but when the CDC and medical professionals say “respirator,” they specifically mean fitted face coverings with certified filtration, like N95s, KN95s and KF94s).
SKIP AHEAD The best N95 respirators to shop | How to shop for N95 masks
How we picked the best N95 masks
While shopping for N95 masks, experts recommend keeping the following in mind:
- NIOSH approval: You should only purchase N95s listed on NIOSH’s list of approved models — they’ve undergone specific testing to meet NIOSH’s performance and quality requirements, which includes making sure they filter out at least 95% of very small particles (0.3 microns in size).
- Appropriate markings: Specific markings on an N95 mask indicate that it’s NIOSH-approved. These markings include identifying information verified using NIOSH’s Certified Equipment List, filter designations, model numbers and more.
- Features: N95 masks should have two straps that go around your head and an adjustable wire nose bridge. These features help ensure that the mask fits tightly against your face, experts told us.
The best N95 masks to purchase
There are dozens of N95s on NIOSH’s list of approved models, but some of them are surgical N95s, which should be reserved for medical workers, according to the CDC. After filtering those out, we chose the models below, each of which are available to shop online and meet NIOSH requirements, as well as expert-recommended criteria. Some N95s come packaged together, while others are individually wrapped.
3M Aura N95 Respirator
3M’s Aura N95 Respirator comes in a pack of three. It has a three-panel design and is foldable. The face covering is made to be low profile around the nose and eye area to accommodate glasses, and it has two head straps as well as an adjustable nose bridge. The respirators come individually packaged.
DemeTECH N95 Respirator
DemeTECH’s N95 has a foldable design, meaning it folds flat when it’s not in use. The respirators are available in a pack of 20. They’re designed with five layers of material, an adjustable nose bridge and two head straps.
BNX N95 Mask
BNX N95 masks fold flat when they’re not in use and have two latex-free head straps. They come with an adjustable metal nose bridge and are available in a pack of 20.
Honeywell N95 Flatfold Disposable Respirator
Honeywell’s N95s fold flat when they’re not in use. They have head straps and an adjustable nose clip with a foam cushion that the brand says helps create a tight seal against the face. Masks come in a pack of 20.
Kimberly-Clark Kimtech N95 Pouch Respirator
The pouch design of Kimberly-Clark Kimtech N95s creates a large breathing chamber, making it easier to talk while wearing the respirators, according to the brand. They’re built with two head straps and an adjustable nose bridge. The N95s come in a pack of 50.
Shawmut Protex N95 Respirator
You can purchase Shawmut N95 respirators in a case of 10, 20, 40 and 240. The masks are built with a piece of foam that lines the inside of the adjustable nose piece, which the brand says helps reduce eyeglass fogging. The N95 respirators have two elastic head straps and come in small and medium/large sizes.
Aidway NIOSH N95 Respirator
Aidway’s N95 mask offers five layers of protection and has a flat-fold design. It’s built with two elastic head straps as well as an adjustable nose piece. You purchase the masks in packs of 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 or 1,000.
WellBefore N95 Flat Fold Respirator
WellBefore’s N95 respirator offers four layers of protection and is available in a flat-fold design. It comes in white or black and is built with adjustable head straps and an adjustable nose piece. The N95s are individually wrapped and come in a 10-pack.
Breathe Healthy LifeMask NIOSH N95 Respirator
Breath Healthy’s flat-fold N95 mask comes with two wide elastic head straps and an adjustable nose piece. They come in a pack of 20 and are available in black and white.
How to buy N95 masks
Buying N95s is simpler than buying international respirators like KN95s or KF94s because they’re regulated in the U.S. by NIOSH, says Dr. David Rempel, a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
When NIOSH gives an N95 its stamp of approval, it means “the respirator has met very specific requirements for testing. It is a quality assurance indicator that the respirator will perform as expected,” says Dr. Stella Hines, an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Medical experts told us that all N95s — whether they come in cup, flat fold or duckbill shapes — should have the following features:
- Appropriate markings printed on the respirator indicating that it’s NIOSH-approved
- Two straps that go around the head, which experts say are used instead of ear loops on all N95 models to create a tighter seal against the face
- An adjustable wire nose bridge
You should not buy N95s that have exhaust ports, which holds true for all face masks, says Rempel. The CDC also states that “special N95 respirators labeled as ‘surgical’ or ‘medical’ should be prioritized for healthcare workers.”
Meet our experts
At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. David Rempel is a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he started its ergonomics program.
- Dr. Stella Hines is an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She’s board-certified in occupational medicine, pulmonary medicine and internal medicine. Dr. Hines’ research interests include respiratory protection and pulmonary function and symptom analysis in occupational exposure groups.
Why trust NBC Select?
Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor at NBC Select who has covered face masks since 2020. She’s written about disposable masks, KN95 masks, N95 masks and KN95 masks for kids, in addition to at-home Covid tests and vaccine card holders. For this article, Malin spoke to two experts about how to shop for N95 masks.
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