Amazon has recently launched a slick-looking face mask store, designed to help people to find a face covering more easily. But when we looked into the listings we uncovered some worrying issues.
We found multiple listings with disappointed reviews complaining about poor product quality and doubts over certification for masks listed as PPE.
One has since been taken down by Amazon pending investigation, after we flagged these concerns to them.
There's a smaller selection to sift through, narrowed down from the thousands of products you typically have to trawl through on Amazon. There were around 55 cloth masks for sale, and fewer than 15 of each of the different types of disposable mask, when we checked it over.
You might therefore expect that they represent some of your best options, but many of the highlighted products had more than a few disgruntled customers, with some reviews even warning people about the possibility that they're buying fake PPE.
Many of the masks on Amazon's face mask store state they are KN95 masks, but this is a Chinese standard that doesn't apply in the UK, and there have been several warnings from UK organisations about widespread fraudulent claims relating to KN95 masks.
One of the masks listed on Amazon's face mask store - a KN95 mask from the brand QianGuo - depicted certification from notifying body ECM (Ente Certificazione Macchine), which a reviewer flagged as fake.
ECM says it is aware of 'blatant misuse and forgery of certificates' and stated that it's 'not a certified body for PPE'.
We notified Amazon and it has taken down this listing pending investigation.
The UK government Health and Safety Executive flagged the issue earlier this year, saying that 'a substantial number of face masks, claiming to be of KN95 standard, provide an inadequate level of protection and are likely to be poor quality products accompanied by fake or fraudulent paperwork'.
The also warned that it had been notified of a number of manufacturers selling medical face masks and PPE using false certificates. The extensive on the European Safety Federation (ESF) website gives an indication of the scale of the problem.
An Amazon spokesperson said: 'If we find a product that doesn't meet our guidelines, we remove it from sale and take appropriate action against the seller, which may include removal of their account. If customers have concerns about items they have purchased, we encourage them to contact customer services direct so we can investigate and take appropriate action. Customers can contact customer service for a full refund if the product isn't as expected.'
While some of the reusable face coverings in the Amazon face mask store have several layers, as per the most recent health organisation guidelines, others are more basic.
The mask pictured above was on the first page of results for cloth masks. It's a rudimentary, single-layer piece of stretchy fabric with holes to loop round your ears. While arguably anything is better than nothing, a third of reviewers gave this mask only one or two stars.
For listings with a certain number of reviews, Amazon picks out commonly used phrases that you can filter by. Keywords for this listing are 'poor quality', 'thin and flimsy', 'waste of money' and 'absolute rubbish'.
Several of the 'general-use' disposable masks listed in the Amazon face mask store had a number of scathing reviews for being generally flimsy and of poor quality.
The products pictured below featured on the first page of results and were among just eight masks that Amazon had chosen to highlight in this category:
This Pharmadent mask has 200 star ratings but only 39 written reviews. While 58% (116 people) rated it five stars, only 23 people had actually written five-star reviews - but 22 people had written one or two-star reviews. Two common review keywords are 'waste of money' and 'useless'.
For this unnamed brand of mask, which is dispatched from and sold by Amazon and tagged as 'Amazon's Choice', common keywords are 'waste of money' and 'poor quality'. Despite a four-star rating overall, it has 94 positive reviews and 93 critical reviews.
Nearly all of the critical reviews for these MSK masks mentioned the straps breaking, and many disgruntled customers were concerned that the masks came decanted in a plastic bag and not the packaging shown on the listing.
Amazon emphasised to us that all three disposable masks have an average rating of at least 4.2 stars out of five, but the way that this average is calculated isn't clear.
Amazon told us that all the products on its face mask store are subject to pre-sale quality checks, either carried out by Amazon or by external testing organisations, but that disposable blue face masks are only designed for single use.
While we wouldn't expect them to be ultra sturdy, if they're reported as breaking before or during a single use, then its hard to see how they can be considered fit for purpose.
If you're looking to buy a mask from an online retailer, be prepared to do some digging and don't take the overall review ratings at face value. As the examples above show, they don't always give the whole picture.
Take the time to check the common keywords and read through critical reviews to see if you can spot any red flags.
A high number of mentions of breakages, concerns about certification, or products arriving unboxed or in different packaging than expected are all ones to look out for.
It's also possible that a flurry of either very positive or very negative reviews may be fake. Research has shown that some sellers employ these tactics to push up the visibility of their products.
If you don't need to use a face mask in a medical setting, you're best off choosing a reusable cloth face mask with several layers, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UK government.
This is a good practical option, which saves you spending on replacement disposable masks and avoids creating plastic waste.
Features to look for include:
While the UK government exclusively advocates reusable face coverings, the WHO says some groups should consider wearing basic medical masks, such as those over the age of 60 or with certain health conditions.