Getting enough shut-eye can be hard work. If you’ve tried everything from meditation to melatonin, you may be interested in a viral sleep hack that is doing the rounds on TikTok. The hashtag #MouthTaping has 11.7 million views, with users swearing by it for deeper sleep, reduced snoring and other benefits. The logic is simple: by taping your mouth shut, you have no option but to breathe through your nose.
But just how bad for us is mouth breathing, and how safe can taping your lips together be – especially when you’re floating in and out of consciousness?
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What’s the problem with mouth breathing?
Hands up if you wake up with a mouth dryer than the Sahara. Or perhaps with a kick from your partner for snoring too loudly. If you’re wildly waving your hand around, chances are that you’re a mouth-breather. It might feel like a natural way to breathe, but there are many downsides to mouth breathing, including low oxygen concentration in the blood, dental conditions such as bleeding gums and cavities, high blood pressure and sleep apnea, which can also increase the risk of drowsiness throughout the day as well as cardiovascular diseases.
“The common (mis)perception is that if you open your mouth, you can get more air into your lungs. It’s actually the reverse,” Dr Steven Y. Park, an ENT physician, tells Stylist. “When you open your mouth, the tongue base rotates back, narrowing your throat. So at night, if you open your mouth inadvertently, your airway narrows and you’ll snore more or go on to have apneas.”
What exactly is mouth-taping?
This is where mouth-taping can come in. The idea is about training your body to breathe through your nose rather than your open mouth. “How you breath – fast or slow, deep or shallow, mouth or nose – will have an impact on your body,” explains Dr Katharina Lederle, head of sleep health at sleep programme Somnia.
“Nasal breathing produces nitric oxide, which then is inhaled into the lungs. There, it helps to increase lung capacity to absorb oxygen as it widens the airways and blood vessels, which can then take on more oxygen. This also plays a role for blood pressure regulation which is better in nose breathers.”
Other benefits to nasal breathing during sleep include balancing out the pH levels in your mouth, preventing dental decay, decreasing your chance of snoring, preventing your sinuses from drying out by lubricating your nostrils, and making the air you breathe more humid, helping with chronic lung diseases such as asthma. Now that’s a pretty long list of benefits.
While some people online swear by taping their mouths as a solution to mouth breathing, the science behind this technique is lacking. A 2015 pilot study found that oral patches can help people with sleep apnea, however the sample size was too small to draw significant conclusions. Furthermore, there may be some unintentional side effects to contend with such as skin irritation around the mouth, sticky residue left over the next day or potential insomnia and sleep disruptions. However, as Dr Park notes: “There are no reports of any injury or death as a result of mouth taping. However, there are countless reports of improved sleep and quality of life.”
Why isn’t mouth-taping recommended by the NHS?
Founder of the Family Sleep Practice and contracted NHS sleep practitioner Tabitha Moynagh recommends anyone who struggles with breathing through their mouth at night see a doctor who can check their nose and throat. “Mouth-taping isn’t something we’d recommend for NHS patients. If the patient is keen to resolve their snoring, we would recommend consulting a medical practitioner to investigate as snoring can be an indicator of sleep apnoea.
“Sleep apnoea can badly affect sleep quality, but more importantly, can increase the risk of developing things like heart disease, so it’s important to have it checked.”
This is where common sense is also key. If you have trouble breathing through your nose, don’t tape your mouth shut. Simple. Moynagh also suggests that if an individual decides to try mouth taping, they should only do so if they have no congestion or difficulty breathing through their nose. They should also only use it for up to six weeks and only after ruling out sleep apnoea with a doctor.
Dr Park explains that mouth taping isn’t an on-off switch. “People will have various degrees of responses. In general, about a third will have significant improvement in their quality of sleep, a third will see some improvement and a third no improvement.”
If you are nervous about taping your mouth shut, you can help your body adjust by taping your mouth for periods of time during the day so you get used to it.
“I recommend optimising nasal breathing first before mouth taping, just to make sure you’re comfortable with your mouth closed,” says Dr Park. “If you have allergies or a deviated nasal septum, it may be uncomfortable.” He recommends starting with decongestant sprays only for a night or two, then taping the lips on the next night to see if it helps in addition to opening the nose.
He also says that vertical taping using one-inch medical tape can help. Plain surgical tape does the job, although some brands offer tape designed to go around the mouth to bring the lips together. If you are going for the surgical tape option, apply a thin layer of Vaseline to your lips before applying the tape to help reduce the stickiness.