If you’re concerned about spiking COVID cases, restocking your supply of face masks might be a top priority. For the best protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say you should look for respirators like N95s.

According to the CDC, when worn consistently, well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — including N95s — “provide the highest level of protection from particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19.” The CDC sorts everything by efficacy, prioritizing respirators above masks and emphasizing the importance of a proper fit:

  • Highest level of protection: Well-fitting respirators approved by NIOSH, including N95s
  • Less protection than NIOSH-approved respirators: Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95 masks
  • Less protection than non-NIOSH respirators and surgical masks: Layered, finely woven products
  • Least protection (but still better than not wearing a mask at all): Loosely woven cloth products

Overall, the CDC says Americans should “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.” But medical experts encourage the public to make respirators their first choice for face coverings. (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).

To learn more about N95s, we consulted medical experts about who should use them, when to wear them and how to source and shop for them. We also compiled highly rated N95s that are approved for use by NIOSH and available online.

SKIP AHEAD How to shop for N95 masks | How to wear N95 masks | Can you reuse N95 masks? | Should kids wear N95s?

Our top picks

How we picked the best N95 masks

While shopping for N95 masks, experts recommend keeping the following in mind:

  • NIOSH approval: Experts tell us 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 tell 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 the CDC says should be reserved for medical workers. 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, which we indicate below.

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.

Harley N95 Respirator

Harley’s N95s are built with two latex-free head straps and an adjustable nose piece that has a piece of padded foam underneath for added cushioning. The respirators are foldable and 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 tell us all N95s — whether they come in cup, flat fold or duckbill shapes — should at least 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

Rempel says you should not buy N95s that feature exhaust ports, which holds true for all face masks. The CDC also states that “special N95 respirators labeled as ‘surgical’ or ‘medical’ should be prioritized for healthcare workers.”

How to wear N95 respirators

Regardless of the type of mask you wear, it won’t protect you or the people around you unless you wear it correctly. The CDC recommends making sure your mask completely covers your mouth and nose and fits tightly against your face to prevent gaps around the sides of the mask, nose and chin.

In settings where workers are required to wear an N95, like some construction zones and healthcare settings, they must complete an official fit test, Hines says. The public, however, does not need to do a formal fit test before buying and wearing an N95. Regardless, Hines says you should still check to see if your respirator fits properly before wearing it in public.

“N95 respirators will provide the regulated, expected level of protection to the wearer only if there is a good seal to the face,” she says. “You want a good seal so that all of the air that is breathed in is pulled in through the mask body. That is where all the filtration of particles and microbial contaminants occurs.”

Rempel says you can do an at-home leak test with an N95 by putting it on and breathing out. If you can feel the air under your chin or around your eyes, it’s not tight enough. And if your glasses are fogging up while wearing an N95, there’s leakage and it’s not tight enough, Hines says.

All masks and models fit differently, and features like adjustable ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge help you improve the fit of your mask, as do mask fitters or braces, according to the CDC. Using a fitter or brace is especially a good idea for people with facial hair, which can make it difficult to achieve a tight fit.

The CDC says you should not double-mask while wearing an N95 or KN95 mask. You should not wear respirators with exhalation valves or vents, either, according to the CDC — this guidance applies to all masks.

Can you reuse N95 masks?

Technically, N95s are disposable, single-use face coverings. But if you remove and store an N95 properly, you can reuse it multiple times — simply put, that entails taking the mask off by its head straps and then storing it in a paper or mesh fabric bag between uses, the CDC says.

Hines says N95 manufacturers often provide instructions for the suggested length of use on the box or online. But in general, you should throw out your N95 if it gets damaged — if it gets crumpled up in your bag, for example — or if you can no longer achieve a tight seal to the face. You should also replace your N95 if it gets wet, dirty or contaminated.

Should kids wear N95 masks?

N95 respirators are not intended for use by children and have not been broadly tested on them, according to the CDC. However, some brands offer N95s in small and large sizes, and smaller N95s may fit some children’s faces. Select brands make kids KN95s, too. When it comes to kids’ face coverings, the CDC says it’s most important to choose a well-fitting and comfortable option to reduce the chance of children removing it often or wearing it incorrectly.

Why wear a face mask? Do face masks protect others against Covid or just the wearers?

To recommend when Americans should wear face masks, the CDC determines an area’s Covid-19 Community Level risk on a scale of low, medium or high. To do so, it analyzes how many Covid-related hospital beds are in use, hospital admissions and the total number of new Covid cases in that area. Each Covid-19 Community Level corresponds to a masking recommendation — suggested precautions increase alongside the level. To determine your area’s Covid-19 Community Level, use the CDC’s Covid-19 county check.

The CDC’s order requiring masks on public transportation and at transportation hubs is no longer in effect, and many airlines also ended their mask mandates this spring. However, CDC said it “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings,” despite being unable to enforce any rules. Before you use a specific public transportation system in your area, be sure to double check its mask requirements as they can change at any time.

Experts have repeatedly stressed that masks help reduce the risk of viral transmission. One 2021 CDC study found that, between two properly masked or double-masked people, the risk of one giving the other a virus was cut by over 95 percent. Masking up also protects other people, as demonstrated in numerous studies like these gathered by the CDC.

Meet our experts

At 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 Select?

Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor who has covered face masks for Select 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 KN95 masks and tried every mask she recommended in the article.

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