Razer’s N95 debacle is a reminder to double check COVID claims

The color-changing lights and futuristic look of Razer’s Zephyr and Zephyr Pro face masks almost made everyone forget what masks are actually supposed to do: Protect wearers from COVID.

The kerfuffle around Razer recently removing “N95 grade” language from mask descriptions is certainly not a good look for the gaming gear company. But it’s also a reminder to anyone in the market for a mask, test, or other COVID-related product in the wake of the Omicron variant surge to not take a company’s claims at face value.

Sounding like official medical information by using jargon and putting up difficult-to-understand graphs doesn’t make that information sound, or the product worthwhile. That’s true for all sorts of health products, but when it comes to protecting against COVID, it might be all the more important to you.

Here’s how a skeptical reviewer helped call out Razer’s dangerous marketing of the futuristic-looking mask with changing, customizable lights and a cool translucent cover. And how you can protect yourself when shopping for COVID protection.

A screenshot of Razer's Zephyr website from the Way Back Machine, depicting an explanation of "N95 grade" protection.

Razer removed this entire section of its website that gave readers the impression they’d be getting “N95 grade” protection.
Credit: Screenshot: The Way Back Machine

While the Zephyr came out in mid-2021, Razer launched the Pro version of the mask, containing voice amplification, at CES during the first week of January. Marketing materials gave the impression that both masks offered N95 grade protection, which are supposed to seal around your face and protect from 95 percent of airborne particles — and that’s where the company got into trouble. 

On Saturday, the gaming gear company Razer removed language from its website describing the filters in its Zephyr masks as “N95 grade.” Users are supposed to switch out the masks’ filter inserts, made and sold by Razer, every 72 hours. 

“The wearable by itself is not a medical device nor certified as an N95 mask,” Razer said in a statement sent to Mashable. “To avoid any confusion, we are in the process of removing all references to ‘N95 Grade Filter’ from our marketing material.” Razer had noted in product descriptions that the mask had “been tested for 95% Particulate Filtration Efficiency (PFE) and 99% Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE),” and confirmed that the testing took place in its statement.

Razer made the website copy change after criticism by popular China-based DIY builder and hardware reviewer Naomi Wu, who goes by “Sexy Cyborg,” went viral. She was excited about the Zephyr because she thought a cool design that would make people actually want to mask up was promising and important. But ultimately, she was dismayed by what she saw as technical flaws.

Wu and her supporters’ criticisms were twofold. First, that the “N95 grade filters” did not actually have N95 certification, which is designated after meeting testing criteria by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Second, aside from the filter insert, Wu claimed that problems with the mask’s seal and other aspects of its construction compromised the efficacy of the mask itself. Essentially, even if you’ve got a good filter with N95 protection, there’s no guarantee that the hardware you’re putting it into will maintain that level of protection along the way.

Wu has been calling out problematic masks since the beginning of the pandemic, when 3D printed masks — that didn’t actually have great designs — became all the rage. You might also recall that early in the pandemic especially, when masks and quality PPE were scarce, warnings about fake N95s and KN95s were everywhere. Now, two years into the pandemic, we still don’t know how to peel apart the marketing speak, and even well-known hardware brands have no issues trying to dupe us to make money.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the Omicron variant surge has led to increased anxiety among the public about how best to protect ourselves. That means bad actors seeking to cash in may sell faulty products, and could lead to consumers buying products that they might not have otherwise.

At the same time, some companies might not have bad intentions, but may be cutting corners to bring products to market when they’re so in demand, according to the Better Business Bureau. Which is why it’s especially important right now to double check that what you’re buying is a quality product.

What to look for when buying COVID products

When it comes to masks, there’s an easy way to do this. The CDC has a list of all N95 and KN95-approved mask-makers. So, thinking of stocking up on some new PPE? Just check that the company you’re thinking of giving your hard-earned cash, and trust, to is on the list.

For masks or other COVID-related products, there are also a few other tactics you can use.

“If you are business or a consumer, BBB recommends when looking to purchase high demand items such as N95 masks, COVID test kits, and other pandemic related items, research the name of the business offering the item for sale on BBB.org,” Sandra Guile, the director of communications at the International Association of Better Business Bureaus, Inc. “Read the reviews and complaints before deciding to make a purchase. If a claim sounds too good to be true, then, it probably is.”

“If a claim sounds too good to be true, then, it probably is.”

Eliza Duggan, a staff attorney at UC Berkeley’s Center for Consumer Law & Economic Justice, provided some other tips for spotting and avoiding the “variety of product-related scams that have cropped up — from fake COVID-19 treatments to rental car scams to fake COVID tests.” She recommends consumers:

  • Review the FTC’s newsletter on fakes and scams.

  • Check the FDA’s website to make sure COVID tests and PPE are on an approved list.

  • Use a search engine to research the website you’re buying from and see if there are complaints or scams associated with that website.

  • Pay by credit card so you can more easily dispute a scam charge, and never pay for goods with a gift card.

  • Report suspected scams to the FTC.

Unfortunately, finding reputable information can sometimes be challenging — which is partially why Wu felt it was important to call out Razer.

“Frankly, it’s difficult to tell consumers to do their research because of the sheer volume of misinformation out there from credible sources,” Wu said via email. “There are very few authoritative, trustworthy, and easily understood sources on COVID med-tech and content algorithms aren’t optimized to promote the most accurate content, just the most controversial. All we can say is right now; best practice is disposable or elastomeric, NIOSH certified, N95 masks, as good a fit for your face as you can find.”

When it comes to COVID products, don’t let the flashing lights blind you.

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