Explainer: How to differentiate between real and fake face masks

In the last two weeks there have been arrests and confiscations of fake face masks by the Anti-Counterfeit Authority (ACA).

Facemasks labelled 3M, which are originally produced by Adams and Adams company were reportedly confiscated in Malaba at the border of Kenya and Uganda. The 14,000 masks were valued at Sh1.4 million.

Twenty-six 3M-labeled masks belonging to Adam and Adams were seized from a chemist in Nairobi Central Business District.

The high demand of these products at such times has prompted unscrupulous business people who want to make quick money to sell fake face masks, putting gullible Kenyans at risk.

Face masks are now a daily necessity with the government going as far as to fine those spotted not wearing one in public. It has now become our new normal. 

As our health and peace of mind rely on these seemingly simple squares of fabric, it is more important than ever that we are able to guarantee that the products we use are genuine. Luckily, there are a few simple things to check out for before buying them.

1. Packaging 

According to ACA Chief Executive Officer Elema Halake, the first thing to check is the packaging of the masks.

“Check for packaging. Any regular user of a product knows the product package and appearance. Also check for the consumer experience; things like texture, feel, tastes and viscosity. If you feel the experience is different, that is a red flag for a fake product,” he advised.

2. Pricing

Kenyans should also beware of buying cheap face masks. Cliché as it may sound, the reality remains that cheap is expensive.

“On pricing, do not fall for seemingly cheap products. Go for the standard prices. Also check for labelling and description of the ingredients,” he added.

3. Design

With a variety of the types of masks in the market, from Surgical, to N95 and cloth masks, it is difficult to know which one is the real mask. Here’s how the different masks are supposed to look, feel and work:

Surgical Masks

Surgical mask

Surgical masks have a three-layer protection design and are a relatively safe choice to prevent bacterial and viral infections. The 3 layers would typically consist of a Translucent piece (top), White piece (middle), and the coloured piece (Green, Blue, or even White). 

3 ply surgical mask

It may sound like common sense but pay special attention that the word "surgical” which appears on the packaging. It may also say "medical surgical mask"

Usually, the outer packaging of more formal medical surgical masks will also be marked with a product registration number. If there is a number, it will usually contain the place where it was made.

Surgical masks not only protect others from your cough and sneeze, they also provide protection against others’. This is why The outer layer is designed to be waterproof.

To check this, fold your mask such that the outer side forms a funnel and pour some water into it. If the mask holds up the water properly, then it is legitimate. The bottom of the funnel should not be wet or damp.

Lastly, the middle layer of a surgical layer is a filter, not a piece of paper. Therefore, if you were to light it with a flame, it will not catch fire. If your surgical face mask catches fire, then it is fake.

As long as you do not need to make regular visits to the hospital, ordinary medical surgical masks should be sufficient for keeping you safe. It is however only recommended for one-time use.

N95 Masks

N95 face mask

N95 masks can filter 95 percent microorganisms and particles. 95 means that the mask can filter out at least 95 per cent of particles of all sizes from the air. This makes them the best at protecting you from airborne viruses just as long as you wear them correctly.

These types of masks are usually labelled N95 or KN95 masks, but are exactly the same in terms of how they are manufactured. The "N" refers to the American standard, whereas "KN" is the Chinese standard, and the masks produced according to these two standards have exactly the same level of protection. Some sellers may state that the N95 masks are better in order to inflate prices.

Your N95 mask should always have The National Institute for Occupational safety and Health (NIOSH) label. NIOSH has a website with a list of certified license holders to manufacture the N95 masks. Fake N95 masks will have the NIOSH mark missing or have the name of the website misspelt, like ‘NISH’ or ‘NOISH’. 

The masks should also not shed any particles. Anything that breaks off or sheds from your mask such as fibers and little particles should tell you that the mask is fake.

Lastly, when wearing an N95 mask, you have to be able to breathe. If you find it very hard to breathe when wearing the mask, then it most probably is fake.

N95 masks are supposed to be discarded after one to two days depending on the extent of your use (full day versus half a day). 

Cloth masks

Ordinary cloth masks

Ordinary cloth masks are meant for activities like day-to-day cleaning and do not provide adequate filtration of particles and microorganisms. Though considered the most comfortable, ordinary masks are the least effective at protecting you from viruses. But most textile companies and tailors are now making them after the government ordered Kenyans to wear surgical masks in public.

Legitimate cloth material masks should be made of double layer of fabric with a filter layer in the middle for greater protection. The Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) has advised Kenyans to wash these re-usable face Masks with soap and preferably hot water before using them.

It is also important to note that all these types of masks need to be approved by KEBS. The standards for the production of the face masks are also available on the KEBS website. They also conduct free testing of the masks.

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