After almost two years of wearing a cloth mask, I recently heeded experts’ advice and upgraded to a so-called high-filtration respirator to protect against the omicron variant. But it wasn’t long before I found myself considering my reflection in a public restroom and thinking, “Wow, this looks really stupid.”
This N95 had added a giant duckbill to my face. Protection is more important than not looking like a cartoon duck, I realize. I’m lucky to have it. But my goal is not to look like Daffy.
Aside from double-masking at times, I’d made it to January 2022 without ever concerning myself with anything more serious than a disposable surgical mask. I still associated N95s and the other “fancy masks” with shortages from early on in the virus, when regular people were asked to leave the PPE to medical professionals. Clearly it was time to change my tune, but I couldn’t really parse the articles that threw around the terms N95, KN95, and KF94. Were KN95s and KF94s some sort of weird knockoffs? How would I know if I found fake ones? And I knew nothing I read would tell me one big thing I really wanted to know: Which of these masks will make me look the least stupid? After wearing fabric masks for a long time, I had started to develop a sense of what made for a cool mask—was there such a thing as a cool high-filtration mask?
If you, like me, are looking for a simple answer to these questions, I’m happy to share my findings: If you don’t know what mask to try, try the KF94. If you start wearing one, you’ll be comfortable, you won’t look like a duck, and most importantly, you will be very well-protected. Some kids returning to school and forward-thinking adults are already leading the way.
KF94s come from South Korea—the KF stands for Korean filter—where they were designed for use during outbreaks like SARS and are regulated by Korea’s equivalent of the FDA. (The 94 means a 94-percent filtration efficacy.) That means you’ll probably have to order them online, unless you live near a Korean grocery store. They mostly use the “boat-style” 3D design most familiar to me from Baggu’s cloth masks, along with ear loops, and you can wear them for about 40 hours. In addition to avoiding the duckbill shape, the style that uses ear loops rather than headbands is crucial for the secretly vain mask wearer, in my opinion: They mess up your hair so much less. What’s more, some KF94s have adjustable ear loops. (They’re still plain white masks essentially, so adjustable ear loops are as exciting as we’re going to get right now.)
NPR noted in early 2021 that the KF94 had been getting “increasing buzz these days,” but only recently had I heard anecdotal reports that some kids had come home from in-person school and begged their parents for them. Several adults I spoke to swear by them, too. And it’s not a mystery why they’re popular.
Many high-filtration masks “look goofy,” said Aaron Collins, a Minneapolis-based engineer who’s become known as “the Mask Nerd” online for his rigorous mask testing. While he personally isn’t very concerned with aesthetics, Collins understands that others are. “There is an aspect that people in this world want to look cool. I don’t blame them for that,” he said. The KF94 is a step in that direction. He himself opts for the mask most days when he goes into work. (Some caveats: Collins was careful to warn not to order any mask in bulk before trying it out and making sure it fits the intended face, and said that it may be a little while before you can actually get your hands on some KF94s because of a tight supply chain.)
Another plus in my book is that according to Collins, these masks are very unlikely to be counterfeit—he’s come across fakes in other mask types, but not KF94s. They’re mostly going to be plain, but if you look, there are even some patterned ones available out there: For those in search of better-looking masks, Collins shouted out a Hong Kong–based company called Mask Lab that makes KF94-style masks (though they aren’t official KF94s because they’re not from Korea): “They make printed masks that look like cloth masks but have the protection of a KF94. And those are amazing.”
These masks have apparently gained a cult following under, or over, my nose. As Mallory Langston, a lawyer in Arkansas, recounted to me, “I tried the KN95s, but I couldn’t get a good seal,” she said, and experts have emphasized that good masks are all about a tight seal.* “I started seeing pictures and videos of high-profile people in masks that I hadn’t seen before, so I just started throwing words at Google to find out what they were. I found some online, and once I tried them, I was sold,” she said.
Author Lydia Kiesling told me that KF94s are “one of the only ones that fits my 7-year-old without intervention.” Refreshing that at least some young people are after something besides their vanity! (She also uses a KF94 for her 4-year-old, but that one requires her to tie the straps.)
If all the kids are doing it, sign me up. So what if they’re in elementary school! Collins’ son, too, wears a KF94: The 6-year-old prefers a particular style called the “Tiger” from a brand called Blue. “My son started wearing them in March of last year, and he’s worn them ever since and he likes it and that’s his mask,” he said. “Is it the best mask from a kid’s perspective? I’ve tested ones that I think are a little better. Does he wear them? No, he wants his Tiger mask. That’s what he likes.”
Collins conceded that it could be selection bias but said that he too had noticed that a lot of young people prefer KF94s. “I’ve heard from many, many parents like, ‘Wow, they really like these masks. They don’t complain about the mask anymore.’ ”
Word is certainly getting around. “I’ve witnessed three times in the past week moms coming up to my wife and asking what masks our kids were wearing,” my colleague Derreck Johnson told me. “They were KF94s.”
Correction, Jan. 20, 2022: This piece originally misidentified Mallory Langston as Molly Langston.