Sourcing Masks From China: An Update
May 29, 2020
For most Americans and Europeans, it’s never been fun to wear masks – unless, of course, you’re in New Orleans during Mardi Gras or at a carnival – or if you are robbing a bank. Despite this cultural bias, masks make sense during the current pandemic: they work. For example, in Hong Kong, masks have proven to be very efficient in blocking the spread of Covid19. Such a simple thing, and yet so effective. You can see why demand for masks and other PPE has skyrocketed globally.
With that said, let’s be clear: CPG does not sell masks. But we have assisted many of our clients to purchase them since the outbreak of Covid19. As a result, we find ourselves on the receiving end of many questions regarding the supply and demand of different types of masks, and how it has affected pricing in China.
Types of Masks
There are two types of masks in high demand at the moment. N95 masks and basic surgical masks.
N95 masks: The purpose of this type of mask is to protect the wearer.
There are two end-uses for the N95 masks: industrial dust protection and medical protection. Both use a type of particulate respirator/filter certified by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) which provides a filtration efficiency that blocks 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles. So, N95 masks require specific standards and stringent requirements. And they are not fun to wear for a prolonged amount of time. More information can be found on the CDC website.
Surgical Masks: The purpose of this type of mask is to protect others from the wearer.
These are special, multi layered masks designed to prevent moist particles from leaving your mouth and nose and potentially infecting others or landing on surfaces that others might touch.
In that sense they work better than say, a simple scarf. These masks are much cheaper and more common than the N95 masks.
Since the outbreak of Covid19, there has been a huge global demand for these masks. That demand will continue because Covid19 will remain a threat until a vaccine is in place and most masks are one-time use. You can expect that such demand will continue for months, perhaps years to come.
Current demand is so high that most producers cannot satisfy it. According to an interview with 3M by the Wall Street Journal, demand currently exceeds their production capacity.
Supply: Mask Production in China
Trying to keep up with demand has strained the supply chain. Prior to the COVID outbreak, China was already producing about half of the world’s masks. Factories there make over 100 million N95 masks a day according to this article from Newsweek.
These, and the surgical masks are produced by thousands of qualified, legitimate factories but there are also bad actors on the scene. Sudden and unusually large demand often leads to unscrupulous behavior, so buyers beware.
China has stepped up its qualification process to avoid exporting poor quality products and production has ramped up in the USA as well. However, importers should still proceed with caution. The best way to ensure you get reliable quality is to buy production from qualified suppliers rather than inventory from unknown sources.
Pricing fluctuates a lot right now because of the unexpected demand and the near desperation of some buyers. Moreover, freight, which is mostly by air because everyone wants the goods immediately, has dramatically increased. Air freight is now more than three times higher than its pre-Covid levels.
All this makes buying masks from China an expensive and unpredictable proposition as the world adjusts to a new normal. In the long run, it’s highly likely that China will remain the low cost supplier but for now, there may be better options from USA suppliers.
Feel free to share your thoughts and questions with us in the comments below.
By Jocelyn Trigueros