When I first moved to South Korea, air pollution wasn’t something that I even considered. Sure, I’d seen pictures of very polluted cities around the world, but I barely knew what fine dust was. Let alone considering fine dust masks in Korea!
I quickly learnt that I wasn’t alone. For many ex-pats moving to Korea, fine dust is a new concept. This is something that can quickly lead to worry – how could this pollution impact our health? How do we protect ourselves from the dust? Also, what is the best fine dust mask to protect your health in Korea?
For that reason, I decided to write a guide today for anyone looking to choose the best fine dust mask in Korea. There are a lot of choices, and it is very easy to feel overwhelmed. Luckily, it’s not as difficult as you may think.
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When Should You Wear a Fine Dust Mask?
Factories in China and Korea are one of the leading causes of air pollution in Korea.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this. The need for a fine dust mask varies from person to person, and everyone has a different level at which they begin to feel the need for a fine dust mask.
Generally, 100-150 on the AQI scale is considered dangerous for sensitive groups (those with respiratory conditions such as asthma), and 150+ is considered dangerous for everyone. However, some people experience breathing difficulties below 100, especially in some seasons where there are more particles in the air.
If you are unsure when to wear a fine dust mask, discuss it with a doctor. This is especially important for those with respiratory conditions.
However, for the general population, a fine dust mask is highly advisable in Korea when the AQI is over 150. Many people will even start to wear them when the air quality index reaches higher than 100. If you are wondering how to check the AQI, please refer to this post on the best AQI apps.
Read more: How to find cheap fine dust respirators.
Fine Dust Mask Ratings in Korea
Understanding fine dust masks in Korea can be difficult at first. With the number of different rating systems, it can often seem difficult to understand or even overwhelming at first. Luckily, it’s not as hard as it may seem at first!
There are two main rating systems that you need to know in Korea, the KF (Korean) rating system, and the N (U.S NIOSH) rating system. I have also chosen to include the KN (Chinese) rating system on this list as it can be easily found on online retailers such as Gmarket and Coupang.
When you purchase a mask, the mask rating system that you purchase isn’t as important as making sure that the mask has some kind of rating. Never purchase a fine dust mask in Korea if it doesn’t have a rating.
KF Mask Ratings
If you have looked at fine dust masks in Korea at all, then you probably already know about KF ratings. These are the ratings the MFDS (Ministry of Food and Drug Safety) assign to masks that fulfil certain filtration requirements.
If you have ever seen an N rated mask (such as N95), then these masks are very similar. They are rated to filter a percentage of micro-particles as small as 0.3 micrometres (and even smaller).
It is very important that you always seek these ratings on masks. Masks that don’t have a rating (whether N, KF or another rating entirely) are not protecting you at all from fine dust. It’s vital to understand this: never purchase an unrated mask to protect yourself from fine dust.
Masks in a Korean convenience store. Look for the masks with a KF rating!
KF ratings come in three different levels – KF80, K94, and KF99. However, KF94 masks tend to be far more common than the two other variants. The number on the mask represents the filtration capabilities.
- KF80 – Filters at least 80% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
- KF94 – Filters at least 94% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
- KF99 – Filters at least 99% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
It is important to keep in mind that the number is the minimum filtration the mask offers – often they will perform better than the listed rating.
N Mask Ratings
While KF rated masks are the most common fine dust masks to find in Korea, N rated masks are also quite common. These masks are very similar to KF masks, and the biggest difference is that they are rated by the U.S NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).
Similar to the KF ratings, the number after the N represents the filtration capabilities of the mask. However, these masks come in slightly different levels.
- N95 – Filters at least 95% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
- N99 – Filters at least 99% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
- N100 – Filters at least 99.97% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
Both N and KF rated masks are effective at filtering fine dust particles and KF94 masks are comparable to N95 masks, and KF99 masks are comparable to N99 masks. N100 masks are the most effective fine dust masks.
If you are curious as to why 0.3μm is the chosen testing size, you can refer to my article on filtration mechanisms and MPPS.
KN Mask Ratings
Although you typically won’t see these in stores in Korea, KN rated masks can be found quite easily online. The KN rating system is used in China, and it is useful to know about this system in times of mask shortages, or if you are looking for cheaper masks.
KN masks are very similar to N rated masks. For exact details, please refer to this respirator rating comparison. Both the KN95 and KN100 masks will perform very similarly to their N95 and N100 counterparts. KN100 masks are some of the best filtration fine dust masks available in Korea.
KN masks come in three different filtration levels, 90, 95, and 100 (99.97). These masks can often be found for decent prices on Coupang and Gmarket.
- KN90 – Filters at least 90% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
- KN95– Filters at least 95% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
- N100 – Filters at least 99.97% of particles at 0.3 micrometres in size.
I recently reviewed on of the most interesting KN rated masks on this website. You can read my full review on the Xiaomi Purely fan-powered mask here.
Types of Fine Dust Masks in Korea
Fine dust masks being worn at Seoul Station.
There are a few different types of fine dust masks in Korea and it is important that you know how to differentiate between them. A common belief is that any mask will protect you somewhat. This is false.
Using the wrong kind of mask to protect your body from fine dust won’t only be ineffective, but in many cases, the mask won’t provide any protection at all.
If you are looking for a mask to protect yourself from fine particles, make sure to only purchase a mask that is rated by an official source. Two such examples are KF and N rated masks, which are rated by their respective governments.
Surgical masks are some of the most common that you will see in Korea. Usually, you will see a few people wearing these every time you go outside (at least in Seoul!). These masks are very popular but are totally ineffective against fine dust.
These masks will provide absolutely no protection from fine particles such as fine dust. Rather, they are used for other reasons. They catch droplets from the wearer (such as when they sneeze) and are often worn when the wearer is sick.
They are also commonly worn to hide the face. This may be done for a variety of reasons, but in Korea, many women choose to wear these masks when they don’t wear makeup.
Masks are another common type of facial clothing that you will see worn in Korea. Masks are often made from cotton or some other material and look quite similar to respirators. The biggest difference is that similar to surgical masks, they provide no protection at all against fine dust.
Bandanas are also often worn over the face, and again, these provide no protection at all. Although these are worn for a variety of reasons, they are not worn to protect the wearer from fine dust.
Respirators are the only kind of mask that will protect you from fine dust in Korea. These are the masks that carry the ratings discussed above – KF and N. They can also carry other ratings, such as FFP, P, KN, and D. However, in Korea, KF and N are the common ratings that you will come across.
These masks are disposable and are only rated for one use. While it is possible to re-use respirators, the best practice is to dispose of them after 8 hours and replace them. However, realistically this isn’t always possible. If this is the case, respirators can be re-used for a few days, or until breathing becomes difficult.
It is very important to note that respirators must be worn correctly. A respirator that is not worn correctly will only provide very limited protection against fine particles, and won’t prevent them from entering your body.
These masks come in many different sizes and forms, allowing you to pick the mask that suits you best. Some masks will have ear straps, while some have a head strap. Some will have valves, and some won’t.
Reusable respirators are the same as disposable ones in terms of function. However, the biggest benefit is that they don’t have to be discarded after only being worn for a few hours. Typically these masks will laster 100-300 hours, depending on the level of air pollution.
Reusable respirators can be found in many different ratings. The most common are N95 and N99. These masks also have the benefit of being able to be washed – something which you can’t do with disposable respirators.
Another factor which makes reusable respirators popular as fine dust masks in Korea is that they usually have fashionable designs. While simple coloured masks can be purchased, it’s also possible to find them with hundreds of different patterns.
Two popular reusable respirators are the Cambridge Mask and Vogmask, which I recently compared in an article. If you are in the market for a reusable fine dust mask, I recommend checking it out! Another possible option is the MeoAir mask from New Zealand.
I also have a Cambridge Mask review and a Vogmask review! If you are interested in a mask that can be self fit-tested, Totobobo is also a fantastic choice. On the other hand, if you are looking for a mask that is more effective against viruses (instead of pollution) then please refer to my Aropec anti-viral mask review.
Which Mask Is Best?
With all of this information, which mask is the best? Well, there is no single best mask. There are a few!
The key is to make sure to pick a mask with a rating, otherwise called a respirator. An unrated mask will either provide very little or no protection against the fine dust in Korea. For this reason, always make sure to purchase a KF or N rated mask.
Although disposable respirators come in handy in a pinch, they are expensive and can be far more harmful to the environment than a reusable mask. A reusable respirator also provides convenience – no need to worry about purchasing new masks!
These masks can also be washed, which allows them to stay clean. For this reason, I always recommend reusable masks when it comes to fine dust (viruses and sickness are another matter). However, it is always handy to have some disposable masks on hand as well.
N99 reusable respirators – Cambridge Mask N99 (please not that this mask does NOT hold an N99 rating. However, it does meet the N99 filtration criteria of 99%)
Where to Purchase Fine Dust Masks in Korea
Fine dust masks can be purchased at a wide variety of both physical and online locations in Korea. They can usually be found within a few minutes, no matter where you are in Korea!
Physically, these masks can be purchased at a variety of stores. Every convenience store and pharmacy will have a selection, and most supermarkets will also stock masks. Just remember to keep an eye out for the KF rating when purchasing masks at a store (as N rated masks are rarely found at stores).
Online, there are a lot of options also. Both KF and N rated masks can be purchased at a variety of Korean online shopping sites such as Coupang, Gmarket and ElevenStreet. If you need a more specific mask, then Amazon is also an option.
If you want to purchase masks in bulk (which is a good option as it helps to decrease the price), then online is the place to purchase. The same goes for reusable respirators, which are often very hard to find in stores.
Korean Fine Dust Mask FAQ
What Is The Best Fine Dust Mask?
There is no single best fine dust mask in Korea. However, an N100 mask provides the highest rate of filtration of fine dust particles. This is followed by N99, N95, KF94, and KF80.
Are Korean Convenience Store Masks Effective?
It all comes down to the rating. Many masks in convenience stores are unrated, but there are rated options also. Make sure to purchase a mask with a KF rating. KF94 masks are the best that are usually found in convenience stores in Korea.
Is N95 or KF94 Better?
N95 masks provide slightly better filtration than KF94 masks. However, in regards to fine dust, both types of masks perform very similarly. KF99, N99, and N100 masks are better than both, however.
Can Fine Dust Masks be Reused?
Masks are rated for 8 hours of use. However, when used in lower pollution, fine dust masks can be used multiple times. Replace the mask once it becomes difficult to breathe through. For maximum filtration, replace each mask after 8 hours of use.
Are There Fine Dust Masks for Children?
It is possible to find fine dust masks for children. However, usually these are rated KF80 only. These masks only offer limited protection, and must be fitted correctly.
Where Can I Find Cheaper Masks?
Unfortunately, masks often cost quite a lot when they are purchased alone. Bulk purchases are usually a bit cheaper, and are best ordered online. Coupang is a good place to order Korean Fine Dust Masks, and Amazon is another option.