How to Tell if Your Mask is Real Protection or A Dangerous Counterfeit

I have been wearing counterfeit N95 masks for months and didn’t know. After I learned my masks were counterfeit I spotted a Facebook friend’s picture of themself wearing the same vulnerability. Is your N95 mask real or a counterfeit ineffective against protecting you and others from COVID-19? Do you wear a KN95 mask mistakenly thinking it’s a N95 mask? Airborne respiratory droplets containing COVID-19 expelled by talking, sneezing, singing, shouting, a sneeze, cough, or heavy exhale can pass through, and/or around, counterfeit N95 and KN95 masks.

CNN reports that counterfeit N95 masks continue to inundate the US. Between the time the pandemic began to the end of 2020, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized over 14.6 million counterfeit face masks entering the US.

N95 masks are certified by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH-approved N95 masks are considered the gold standard in personal protective equipment because they block 95% of large and small particles utilizing a unique electrostatic filter.

Counterfeit N95 masks are in abundance because there’s a shortage of authentic NIOSH-approved N95 masks. A low supply of N95 masks has prompted the CDC to advise the general public on mask alternatives and guidelines .  N95 masks are to be prioritized for use by health care professionals but NIOSH-approved N95 masks are available to the general public at retailers including Home Depot. Counterfeit masks are also for sale and sold in large numbers at retailers and online. So how can you tell the difference between an authentic NIOSH-approved N95 mask from a counterfeit mask sold as a NIOSH-approved N95?

How To Tell If Your Mask Is Real or Not (from

NIOSH-approved respirators [masks] have an approval label on or within the packaging of the respirator (i.e. on the box itself and/or within the users’ instructions).  You can verify the approval number on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL) or the NIOSH Trusted-Source page to determine if the [mask] has been approved by NIOSH.  

Signs Your Mask May Be Counterfeit:

  • No markings at all on the mask
  • No approval (TC) number on the mask or headband
  • No NIOSH markings
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly
  • Claims for the of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children)
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., fabric indentations, decorative stitching, sequins)
  • The mask has ear loops instead of headbands

After reading those last two indicators (decorative fabric, and ear loops) I sprinted to my mask drawer.

My masks were were not NIOSH-approved masks.

My mask:

Image courtesy Paul Russell / Beach4 Productions

CDC counterfeit example:

Image courtesy of CDC

A vented mask I wore earlier in the pandemic was also displayed on the CDC website as counterfeit.

Below is a photo of me, spring 2020, waiting in line at Chipotle while wearing a vented mask. This was prior to the CDC advising against mask with vents. Vents permit passage of respiratory droplets. An added vulnerability is the mask was a counterfeit N95 manufactured in China.:

Image courtesy of Paul Russell / Beach4 Productions

CDC counterfeit example:

Image courtesy of CDC

CDC example of a NIOSH-approved N95 mask:

Image courtesy of CDC

My new N95 NIOSH-approved mask (purchased at Home Depot):

Image courtesy Paul Russell / Beach4 Productions

The CDC website has more images, advisories, and detailed descriptions to assist the public to identify counterfeit masks versus NIOSH-approved masks.

Two Masks = COVID Prevention Chic:

  • The CDC now says double masking can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • New research shows that tight-fitting, multi-layer masks provide more protection against respiratory droplets, which drive the spread of COVID-19, than less secure options.
  • Doctors explain the reasoning behind wearing two masks—plus how to ensure that your mask meets the new standards.

For more than a month, while wearing the unknowingly vulnerable KN95 mask, I doubled masked. I continue to double mask but with my new masks including a NIOSH-approved N95.

Image courtesy Paul RUssell / Beach4 Productions

Vaccinated? To Mask or Not to Mask? That is The Question:

While mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have demonstrated high efficacy at preventing severe and symptomatic COVID-19, there is currently limited information on how much the vaccines might reduce transmission and how long protection lasts. In addition, the efficacy of the vaccines against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants is not known. At this time, vaccinated persons should continue to follow current guidance to protect themselves and others, including wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, avoiding crowds, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces, covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands often, following CDC travel guidance, and following any applicable workplace or school guidance, including guidance related to personal protective equipment use or SARS-CoV-2 testing.

Visit the CDC website for determining counterfeit masks and NIOSH-approved masks, as well as double-mask guidelines, and safety protocols for vaccinated individuals.

Mask not what your country can do for you – mask what you can do for your country.


Paul Russell is as an award-winning casting director, director and the author of NEW & EXPANDED edition of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a WOrking Actor. He’s cast for 20th Century Fox, HBO, Broadway, and regional theater. Featured in American Theatre Magazine, Paul has directed premiers, and at the Tony-award recognized Barter Theatre. He teaches master classes at university BFA and MFA actor training programs, and privately online with actors globally. Paul began his career in entertainment as a successful working actor.

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Author: Paul Russell

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