Even as mask mandates begin to lift across the country, many people still need high-quality masks for air travel, shopping, and visiting the doctor. One of the best options is the KF94 from South Korea.
KF94 stands for “Korean filter” and “94%” filtration. The KF94 was developed in South Korea for public use, and unlike the N95, which is the respirator-style mask approved in the United States, the KF94 is available in adult and child sizes. In South Korea, the price range for the masks is 529 won to 1,244 won (about 50 cents to $1); most online sellers in the United States charge about $1 per mask. Like other respirator-style masks, a KF94 can be worn for a total of about 40 hours, in any combination of short or long increments, as long as it remains clean and continues to fit snugly on the face.
A More Breathable Mask
Many users say the KF94 is more comfortable and easier to speak and breathe in than other respirator-style masks because the design creates more space between the mask and the mouth. The mask, which has ear loops, arrives flat in a single package and unfolds to reveal extra flaps, including one with a moldable nose bridge, that give complete coverage from the top of the nose to under the chin, with no gaps.
Yoon Byun, a photographer and filmmaker in Portland, Maine, recently purchased KF94s for his children, ages 4 and 6, after reading about them in The New York Times. (Byun has freelanced for the Times.)
“Our kids are pretty good about keeping masks on, but it took a day or so for them to get used to the two flaps, and every morning we pinch the nose part before they go to school so they conform to their faces,” Byun said. “Previously, our younger son would go through at least two cloth masks a day because they would get soaked, but he’s able to wear these all day because they don’t press up against his mouth. Both seem to like them and say they’re easy to breathe in.”
Stricter Regulatory Controls
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said one of the benefits of the KF94 is that South Korea imposes strict controls on mask production and approval.
For a mask to be certified by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in South Korea, mask makers must submit an application that includes details about product development, lab test data and evidence of product safety and efficacy. The ministry inspects several thousand masks a month to make sure they meet government standards, according to a written statement from an MFDS representative.
Although some counterfeit KF94 masks have emerged in recent months, overall there seem to be fewer counterfeits in the supply chain compared with the N95 or the KN95, the respirator-style masks approved in China. “It’s a much, much tighter regulatory regime,” Jha said.
The penalties for selling an unapproved mask or one that does not meet standards are steep, including fines, suspension of product sales and up to five years in prison. In recent months, the ministry has been involved in several high-profile crackdowns on illegal mask production and distribution. In April, the agency prosecuted four people for selling 11.4 million fake masks. And in December, the ministry uncovered 16 companies in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, that were manufacturing and selling fake masks.
How to Spot a Counterfeit KF94
Despite the agency’s efforts, some counterfeit masks have still found their way to online stores, including on Amazon, so it’s important to look for a few key features to make sure you’re getting a real KF94.
Although the MFDS has a portal to check whether a mask has been approved, it’s useful only if you can read Korean. When we used the English version of the site, the search function didn’t work. Recently, we used the South Korean database to look up 17 different KF94 mask brands being sold on Amazon. Eleven of the brands were legitimate, five were counterfeits and the status of one was unclear.
The legitimate masks we found on Amazon include those made by KN Flax, LifeSys AST Keep, Happy Life/Good Day, Instalashes, Yolo Studio, AnyGuard, Happy Day, Happy Life Kids, FlexMon, Petseeker and Puremate. But given that counterfeiters can copy brand names, you still need to do some homework and check for other indicators that the mask meets KF94 standards before you buy it.
Aaron Collins, an engineer who routinely tests masks and has gained a following on YouTube as the “mask nerd,” recommends buying KF94s from South Korean beauty product importers such as Be Healthy or KMact, although prices might be higher. Collins has also created a spreadsheet showing all of the KF94 and other mask brands he has tested. Look in the “filtration efficiency” column to see how the mask performed.
The MFDS offers additional guidance for finding a certified KF94. Here are some things to look for:
Made in South Korea: The mask should state clearly on its website and packaging that the product is made in South Korea. Any mask that claims to be “KF94-style” or is made in China or another country is not a real KF94. Don’t buy it.
Flat, glossy, single-use package: KF94s typically come in single-use flat envelope-style packages with a notch at the top to tear open. The package should have a glossy finish and a lightly-textured border. (A few brands may be sold in packs of five, but it’s not common.) Recently, one of our family members ordered some masks from Amazon that claimed to be made in South Korea, but once they arrived, there were 10 per package in a dull wrapper. We returned them and ordered Happy Day masks, which met all of the requirements.
MFDS certification on the website: Most legitimate mask makers will provide proof of MFDS certification on their website or if you ask. For instance, we emailed Lifesys AST Keep masks, and the company replied with a copy of their certificate within a day.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.