Where to buy masks and, above all, which ones to buy? The question was and remains daily in an era in which despite the recent loosening of restrictions. this accessory is practically indispensable. If it is true that for months now it is possible to circulate without it outdoors in some cities and in some areas, their use remains mandatory even if you are not indoors. It is also compulsory to use them outdoors when it is not possible to maintain the distance. As for closed spaces, public transport, shops, cinemas, conventions and finally offices and shops of any kind, there is still a strict obligation. Knowing how to choose a suitable one and how to recognise reliable ones is therefore topical. This is so if instead of a store, you want to buy masks online, for example on sites such as Amazon.

The purchase online is in fact always much cheaper than in stores and (especially) pharmacies. We are talking about prices that are often half and sometimes a third when compared. The problem is that if it is true that in a store or pharmacy you buy by looking and sometimes even handling the masks, online you must have some more caution. Navigating through the jungle of acronyms and codes, shapes, materials and technologies with the certainty of not making a mistake is impossible due to the complexity of the issues that need to be unravelled. In addition there are the specifications that each mask should present and that we should know how to interpret. To address these issues there are sites and journalists with more authority that can make a contribution and feed a debate. Our purpose in this article is to summarize the differences between the various types and help to buy them online having the necessary knowledge for an informed purchase.

Not all masks are created equal

Let’s start from the beginning: all masks are not the same. Although this is not a big news, it is good to specify it. It is also good to point out that despite the huge variety of products in circulation, there are 4 categories to look at: non-certified masks (divided into “community” and commercial), surgical, FFP2 and FFP3. Let’s see the main differences between them

  • Non-certified masks. We are talking about masks with an unspecified protection factor, those that the Superior Institute of Health, which talks about them in a section of its website giving some basic elements for their construction, defines as “community masks”. This is a hygienic device and not a medical device that if placed on sale must clearly report precisely this wording. These types of masks can also be self-made. In general, these masks protect, up to a certain level (less than surgical masks) others and not us. It is good to know that in some places these types of masks are not accepted; in some countries they are even prohibited for public use. If you are planning to go abroad this holiday season, check carefully that this type of device is accepted.
  • Surgical masks. This type of device, such as community masks, are used to protect those around us from the emission of droplets, the droplets that we emit by breathing, sneezing or coughing, but unlike community masks must meet specific parameters that guarantee their effectiveness in this sense, are in fact classified as medical devices and for this comes the need for certification. They usually bear the writing DM (medical device), the code EN 14683 and the CE mark. A website (not easy to use) allows to understand if they have been certified. If they do not have these indications, they are classified as community masks. Also here consider that in some occasions these masks not only protect you less but they are not even accepted and in their place an FFP2 or an FFP3 is requested.
  • FFP2 and FFP3 masks. The so-called filtering face pieces (hence the acronym FFP) are personal protective equipment (PPE), which are classified in a very precise way and subjected to tests that certify their compliance with certain parameters. Unlike surgical masks, they are also highly effective in blocking droplets that remain in the air. The difference between the two types, FFP2 and FFP3, is essentially in the filtering capacity: FFP2 filters out at least 94% of the particles in the air down to a size of 0.6 μm. FFP3 filters out at least 99% of particles up to 0.6 μm in size. FFP2’s are easier to find and in fact more than sufficient for personal protection. These are the masks to buy and use if you want to not only protect others, but also yourself. And these may be the most difficult masks to choose.

FFP2 and FFP3: which ones are compliant?

The question “is the mask I use to protect myself against the coronavirus compliant?” is a common one. It is indeed a legitimate question that originates from some cases that have made a lot of noise in the media(that of U-Mask, and that of some masks certified by the Turkish laboratory Universal Uygunluk Degerlendirme Hizmetleri, found to be non-compliant). But there are also reports of masks presenting themselves as FFP2 and FFP3 without any certification and others with false certifications.

How to check FFP2 and FFP3 masks

Getting your bearings in this scenario is complicated because, at this point, you run the risk of running into real scams from which it is not easy to defend yourself. However, it is possible to try to limit the risk.

Certifications

To be Classified as PPE, the masks must comply with the standards specified by EU Regulation 425/2016 and must therefore be tested and validated by an authorized specialized laboratory that must certify compliance with the technical standard EN 149:2001 + A1:2009. This is a parameter that classifies these masks as an effective facial filtering system. At that point the CE mark is affixed. So the first thing to check is that the packaging bears the writing DPI (personal protective equipment) or PPE (personal protective equipment), the writing FFP2 or FFP3 (in some cases accompanied by the writing N95) and the writing EN 149:2001 + A1:2009.

Then the initials of the certifying body must appear. It is found after the writing CE; it is a four-digit number, a real “plate number” of the laboratory. But be careful: in some cases the CE mark only means China Export and in this case there is no number (or a random number), so the mask is not certified in Europe. The CE mark, on the other hand, must have a very precise shape and proportions: you can find them here.

The certification body

At this point you are ready for the most important check: the one on the certifying body. A site of the European Union provides the possibility to know to which of the dozens authorized it corresponds. You can do a search by number (as you see below) or do a catalogue search, number by number ordered in a progressive way, from the Nando database.

If the number does not provide any certifying body, you can be practically certain that the mask has not been certified and therefore most probably does not meet the specifications EN 149:2001 + A1:2009.

If you find the certifying body, on the specific page, in the line “Regulation (EU) 2016/425 Personal protective equipment”, click on “HTML” or from the page “HTML”. click on “HTML” or on the “PDF” file, a page will open that must show the certifications for which the body is qualified; check that the item “Equipment providing respiratory system protection” is present. If there is, it means that the mask has been validated by an agency authorized by the EU to issue certification for respiratory protection devices.

Another element that helps to provide certainty that we are dealing with masks actually protective is the code that refers to the certification process. In this case we can talk about the “plate” of those masks applied by the certifier. You should find it on the box or on the envelopes of the individual templates. Usually the certifying bodies have a search engine that allows you to see the information that was collected during the tests. Some manufacturers of masks will facilitate us further by giving us a QR code that refers directly to the certificate granted by the body.

Safe or almost safe

Once you have passed all these steps we can be reasonably sWe can assure you that the masks comply with EN 149:2001 + A1:2009 and therefore offer a high degree of protection. Unfortunately we can not be completely sure because, as written above, there have been unscrupulous laboratories in the past that once paid the … right, have certified even products that do not meet the specifications of the EU.

The case CE 2123

The case that made the most fuss in this area was that of the masks certified by a Turkish laboratory that responds to the code CE 2123 (Universal Uygunluk Degerlendirme Hizmetleri) but according to a company that has carried out some tests would not actually have been in accordance with the specifications EN 149:2001 + A1:2009.

The affair had alerted the European anti-fraud agency also because of reports from Germany, and in Piedmont an investigation was opened for the delivery of these non-compliant masks to health facilities. The Turkish body has firmly rejected the accusations, claiming to have carried out the procedures in a correct manner, opening the door to the doubt (not peregrine) to the hypothesis that the certifying body is finished despite himself in the meat grinder.

One of the hypothesis, for example, is that the laboratory has certified masks that meet the specifications but then the manufacturers have put on the market products of inferior quality, damaging both the laboratory and those who have followed the whole process honestly by having their masks certified by the laboratory CE 2123. P

The fact is that today the vast majority of CE 2163 masks are perfectly compliant. The Turkish certifying body has in fact ordered new tests on all the masks that bear its initials and revoked the validity document. In fact, at the time of writing, in the context of the case of the Turkish laboratory, would not have passed the tests only masks of Chinese production. In an article published a few weeks ago, the Corriere della Sera cited the following as not corresponding to the specifications

Aixine aix m031;
Whenzhou Opticar FFP2;
Grdlight Ffp2;
Meizhuangchen Ffp2;
Ydao Ffp2;
Max 02;
JY Ffp2.

The Invitalia non-compliant mask case

In mid-April 2021, news broke of the <a href=”https://www.lastampa.it/cronaca/2021/03/30/news/la-gdf-sequestra-a-invitalia-oltre-60-milioni-di-mascherine-pericolose-per-la-salute-1.40090740″ target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow noopener”>seizure, ordered by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Gorizia, of 60 million non-compliant FFP2 masks, the remainder of the supply of a batch of 250 million distributed throughout Italy in particular price hospitals, specialized and contracted centers, health care companies, through suppliers accredited by Invitalia, the National Agency for the attraction of investments and business development, owned by the Ministry of Economy. The filtering capacity of these devices was found to be 10 times lower than declared, with a consequent risk for the health personnel who had used them. The masks seized, as mentioned, were part of a state supply and should not be in circulation and therefore should not be in the normal channels of consumption. However, nothing would theoretically prevent you from finding them on sale, in Italy or on some international site, if the seller had obtained a batch on the normal market. We therefore give below the list of non-compliant masks, as appeared in the newspapers.

  • Facial Scyfk Kn95 Gb2626-2006 Filtering Ffp2 S/Valve Dpi disposable
  • Facial (Unech Kn95) Filter Ffp2 S/Disposable Valve
  • Facial (Anhui Zhongnan) FFP2 Filter Gb2626-2006 En149 S/Disposable Dpi Valve
  • Facial (Jy-Junyue) Kn95 Filter Gb/2626-2006 En 149 Ffp2 S/Disposable Dpi Valve
  • Facial (Wenzhou Xilian) Filter Ffp2 Kn95 Gb2626/2006 En 149 S/Disposable Dpi Valve
  • Facial (Zhongkang) Filter Ffp2 Kn95 Gb2626-2006 En 149 S/Disposable Dpi Valve
  • Wenzhou Huasai Facial Filter Ffp2 Kn95 Gb2626/2006 En 149 S/Disposable Dpi Valve
  • Wenxin Ffp2 Filtering Masks – Kn 95 Manufactured by Tongcheng Wenxin Labor Protection Products co Ltd
  • Facial – Bi Wei Lang Ce 1282 – 9600 Type Filter Respirator Manufactured by Yiwu Biweikang Labor Protection Product co Ltd
  • Facial (Simfo Kn95 – Zhyi – Surgika) Filtering Ffp2 S/Valve Dpi En 149 Disposable for protection, distribution by Surgika srl with head office in Levante Bucine (Ar)
  • Facial (Wenzohou Leikang) Filter Ffp3 S/Valvola En 149 produced by Wenzhous Leikang Medical Technology co Ltd
  • Facial (Wenzohou Leikang) Filter Ffp3 S/Valve Gb2626/2006 En149, produced by Haining Nuozi Equipement co Ltd

Good practice in buying online

Buying masks by looking for those that meet the specifications of protection at this point becomes (quite) simple. If you want to buy in a store, just pull out your smartphone from your pocket and follow the steps we listed above. Buying online is a little more complicated because you don’t have the box in your hand and in some cases essential information is missing, including a clear indication that the PPE meets European standards. In order to limit the risk of buying unsafe products, you should

  • find somewhere in the description the number of the certifying body and cross-check it on the NANDO website.
  • Scroll through the pictures as the most qualified manufacturers also provide the certificate number in them. You can check that it matches the name of the manufacturer
  • make sure from the description that the templates are individually sealed
  • preferibilmente choose those of an Italian importer to which to refer in case of problems

Buying on Amazon

Online sellers of masks are different and each has its own rules, its merits and demerits. Probably Amazon, as for several other types of purchase, offers the best conditions and often the best prices. On Amazon we find in particular several masks that clearly report the certification specifications, many are imported from Italian retailers and as many shipped with Prime are delivered immediately and free and can also be returned if you do not satisfy for any reason. Impossible to go through them all. Below, to simplify the task, we indicate those that we have found and that respond in whole or in part to our advice for a (reasonably) safe purchase.

The list we present is “dynamic”. To make sure you make a comparison between price and quality, first check the quantity of masks in the package. Evaluate also other aspects such as the single bagging (almost essential), the presence or absence in the package of hooks to relieve pressure on the ears and shipping that preferably must be with Amazon. A mode that avoids surprises. Obviously also affects if the mask is FFP2 (which as mentioned is still more than enough to reduce the risk of contagion).

In our list we also present some masks for children (which are different from those for adults) and a handy mask case.

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