All of your questions about choosing and procuring the most protective mask possible answered.

With recent research affirming that the type of mask most effective at preventing COVID-19 transmission is some version of an N95, you might be wondering which mask type is the most protective or searching for affordable ways to access higher-quality masks around campus. Don’t fret! Here you’ll find a comprehensive guide as to which masks you should be wearing, how long you can use them, and where to stock up in the vicinity of Columbia without breaking the bank.

Columbia guidelines changed recently to remove cloth masks from the list of approved facial coverings, citing inadequate protection against COVID-19. In these same communications to students, administrators wrote that N95s, KN95s, KF94s, or multi-layered surgical masks provided far better defense against transmission. These seemingly random combinations of letters and numbers do, however, indicate subtle differences between these more protective masks.

The similarity among these three designations is in the significance of the number. The 95 or 94 present at the end of a mask name dictates what percentage of particles greater than .3 microns in size it filters out. These high percentages are the principal reason why these types of masks are so much better at preventing transmission of the COVID-19 virus than surgical or cloth masks. 

The preceding letters, though, are less straight-forward in meaning. The “KF” in KF94 stands for “Korean filter.” The “N” in N95 indicates that the masks have N-series filters, meaning they are not resistant to oil. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more commonly known as NIOSH, created this designation as well as the certification process for most heavy-duty American masks. The “KN” in KN95 denotes that the mask is a Chinese counterpart of the N95. Exercising care while choosing a mask is important regardless of your preferred mask type, but because the CDC reports that 60% of KN95s are fraudulent products, be particularly cautious when buying KN95s.

Because these masks tend to be much more expensive than your run-of-the-mill surgical mask, knowing how to maximize wear is crucial; unfortunately, mileage varies even among experts. The advice that those well-versed in the subject tend to agree on is that you should never attempt to clean your N95 or N95-adjacent mask. Opt instead to store it in a clean place where it can air out. After you’ve worn it for 40 hours or after it’s gotten sufficiently worn out, you should dispose of it and start wearing a new one. See the list below for vetted, affordable methods to procure high-quality masks.

Barnard Testing Center

At the end of a testing appointment at the Barnard Testing Center in the Barnard Annex, you can request an N95, KN95, or KF94 mask for free. While you can only grab one mask at a time and this option is exclusive to Barnard students, if you’re in CC, SEAS, or GS, you can always ask a friend from Barnard to grab one for you.

University Hardware Housewares

While prices are liable to change, at the time of this article’s publication, University Hardware Housewares (2906 Broadway) offers 10-packs of KN95s for $15 and individual KF94s for $3 each. If you’re looking to stock up on quality surgical masks, you can get a pack of 50 for $15 at this Columbia staple as well.

Ivy League Stationers

With the same caveat as the previous entry, at the time of this article’s publication, Ivy League Stationers at 2955 Broadway sells packs of 20 N95s for $15. Mathematically, this is the best deal in the list, so go take advantage of it sooner rather than later!

Hartley Pharmacy

With the same caveat as the previous entry (last time, I promise!), at the time of this article’s publication, Hartley Pharmacy at 1219 Amsterdam Ave offers individual KN95 masks for $3.50 each.

If you can’t wear a more restricting mask or simply need more surgical masks, Columbia’s campus is your oyster. All of the residence halls have boxes of masks at or near the door, as do the front desks of buildings like Lerner or the Barnard Annex. Most of the time, you can ask for a mask—or two, or three—without needing to swipe in. This list will be updated, so please feel free to let us know about any other options or to tell us if any of the options above are presently inaccurate. Be safe!

Image via Flickr