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(KDVR) – After the federal government announced plans to begin offering free masks to curb a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, you may be questioning the difference between the two types of masks that come most highly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: N95 and KN95.

First, it’s important to make clear that the CDC officially refers to N95s and KN95s as respirators. And according to recent CDC guidance, choosing one over the other doesn’t matter in terms of offering a higher level of protection against COVID-19 and filtering air.

In fact, the CDC recently rated well-fitting respirators ahead of common cloth masks as the best option to protect yourself from the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” reads the latest guidance on the CDC’s website.

N95 respirator (credit: Getty Images)

In the simplest explanation, the difference between the N95 and the KN95 respirator is that one (the N95) is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, which regulates masks in the United States. The KN95 is made to meet Chinese standards, and isn’t NIOSH-approved.

However, both masks filter out and capture 95% of tiny 0.3 micron particles in the air, hence the “95” in the names.

KN95 respirator (credit: Getty Images)

One notable feature that differentiates the two is how they are worn: NIOSH-approved respirators (AKA N95s) generally do not have ear loops, but come with headbands to enable a better fit. (Click here for a more detailed look at NIOSH-approved N95 respirators, via the CDC.)

The CDC cautions, however, that about 60% of KN95 respirators NIOSH evaluated during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 did not meet the requirements that they intended to meet, meaning they could be fake.