N95 respirators are the default PPE mask for healthcare professionals in the U.S., and with the ability to filter out at least 95% of airborne particulates, they make a great first choice for you, too. N95s are regulated by the FDA and the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which means they must adhere to a set of standards for quality and effectiveness. But buyer beware, many masks commonly sold via online marketplaces simply appear to be N95s, making it more difficult to identify counterfeits. It’s why Armbrust set up its own laboratory to verify these claims and provide reviews.
Before we get to our top picks, you should know a few things about N95 masks:
- N95 masks are rated as single-use
- N95 masks come in many styles (flat fold, cup-style, etc.)
- N95 masks have head straps vs. ear loops
So how do we determine the relative quality of a N95 mask? First, our lab-based examination confirms that a mask meets its respective filtration goals, which must filter 95% of all particulates. Then, we assess its breathability, known as its airflow resistance – the lower the resistance, the more breathable the mask will be. Generally, we want something that measures no higher than 150-pascal units, but is ideally closer to 100 pascals because it's more comfortable. Finally, we give the head straps a firm tug and conduct a sniff test to assess the construction and odor of the mask.
To date, we’ve tested about a hundred N95 masks and strongly recommend these five:
The Gerson Model 3230 is a white N95 respirator. The mask folds horizontally, giving it a "duckbill" appearance, and features head straps to ensure a proper fit around the nose and mouth. This American-made Gerson N95 passed all independent laboratory tests for breathability (79.3 pascals), filtration efficiency (99.56%), and all of the N95 standard requirements.
The BLOX Surgical N95 Respirator is a white duckbill-style mask. It passed our particulate filtration efficiency machine test with a score of 99.44%. The airflow resistance of this mask is a terrific 68.6 pascals. Its odor is very slight but pleasant, like how it smells when you walk into an ice cream parlor. It’s super breathable, well constructed, and American-made.
The 3M 8511 Cool Flow N95 Respirator is a white cup-style mask. It has a valve to aid breathability, but you’ll want to keep that closed for protection against Covid-19. The fit and fabric receive high marks, but you will have to contend with a glue smell characteristic of all 3M masks. This mask filters an incredible amount of particulates (99.79%), and it offers excellent breathability, thanks to an airflow resistance score of 74 pascals. Made in Mexico and available from The Home Depot.
The BNX N95 Respirator is a white, flat-fold mask. It passed our particulate filtration efficiency machine test with a score of 99.56%. The airflow resistance of this mask is a respectable 79.3 pascals. The head straps are incredibly strong, the fit is pretty good, and its cardboard box smell is negligible. Made in America.
The Indiana Face Masks A105 is a N95, fold-style respirator that has passed all independent laboratory testing for breathability, filtration effectiveness, and construction. This fold-style mask features head straps that tie around the head to create a tight fit. IFM is also an American manufacturer with a long history of producing quality PPE. While the masks do have a faint cardboard odor, it isn’t too overpowering. And, we were really impressed by the construction, which gave us a good fit and seal.There you have it, the top five N95 masks you can feel good about wearing. However, if you can’t find any of the picks listed above, check out our selection of quality, American-made N95 and Respirator masks – or, visit our comprehensive mask testing database, which has hundreds of reviews.