Mouth taping may be a trending sleep hack, but the science behind it is slim

A few small studies have tested the method in people with sleep apnea

A photo of a black man sleeping on his side facing the camera.

Mouth taping is a nighttime trend that some people say improves sleep. But scientists have not yet done large clinical trials to test the practice.

SomniFix

Maybe TikTok showed you people putting a little tape on their lips. Or maybe Instagram served you ads for sticky mouth strips. On social media and beyond, a trend called mouth taping is keeping people’s mouths shut at night — helping them breathe through their nose.

Zack Ford, age 38, first tried the trend last month, after recovering from surgery for a deviated septum. Surgery improved his nasal breathing, but at night, he was still sucking air through his lips. In the mornings, Ford says, he’d wake up with a dry mouth and a scratchy throat.

Ford brought up mouth taping during an appointment with his doctor, who didn’t think there was harm in trying. That evening, Ford placed a small square of surgical tape over the middle of his lips and settled into bed. It was the best night’s sleep he’s had in recent memory, he says. “When I woke up, I was like, ‘Holy shit this works!’”

Mouth taping’s benefits have been touted for everything from the dental to the somnial. People may seal their mouths shut to prevent teeth grinding, bad breath, snoring and sleep apnea — or even to boost fitness or get a stronger jaw.

But there’s little data yet to support such claims, dentist Jonathan Quigley wrote in a June 23 letter in the British Dental Journal. Before advising patients, Quigley, who works at a dental clinic in England, would like to see more studies and have a better understanding of the potential risks and benefits.

Could taping the mouth improve people’s sleep?

Some evidence suggests that mouth taping may have merit for helping treat at least one ailment: sleep apnea. Even here, though, the science is skimpy, and the methods are varied. From a thin strip on the lips to a black patch across the mouth, tape types and techniques can differ between people, brands and studies, making it difficult to draw broad conclusions.

Though popularized recently via social media and the 2020 book Breath, the idea of using a device to keep one’s mouth shut while sleeping isn’t all that new. For years, doctors have used chin straps to help some sleep apnea patients keep their mouths closed during continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP treatment, says Krishna Sundar, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine doctor who directs the Sleep-Wake Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. 

People with the condition can have trouble breathing while asleep: muscles relax, the tongue flops back and soft tissues in the throat collapse, blocking the airway. CPAP is the gold standard treatment. The machine delivers air pressure via a mask worn on the face. It’s kind of like pumping up a tire, Sundar says. Turn it on, and the floppy airway inflates. If masks cover only the nose, though, air can leak out the mouth. Chin straps can keep the mouth closed and prevent air leakage. But they don’t work all that well and some people find them uncomfortable, Sundar says.

A photo of a white man lying in bed with a CPAP machine strapped to his head and covering his nose.
One treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP machine, which pumps air into the nose via a face mask. Doctors sometimes pair it with a chin strap to prevent air from venting out the mouth.Alina555/E+/Getty Images Plus

In sleep studies in his lab, if a person treated with CPAP is venting air through the mouth, Sundar’s team will stick a tiny strip of tape down their lips to keep them closed. “This teensy tape seems to do the job better than a big chin strap,” he says. It makes the CPAP more effective, which can help people get a better night’s sleep. Sundar calls mouth tape one of the tools in doctors’ tool kits, though he would like to see more data on how well it works.

One effect sleep medicine specialist Andrew Wellman has noticed is that, with people’s lips stuck together, air pumped into their noses sometimes flows into their mouths and puffs out their cheeks. “They look like they’re blowing into a saxophone,” says Wellman, of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Other scientists have also observed this “mouth puffing” phenomenon, though Wellman’s team doesn’t yet know how it affects sleep apnea. It’s not dangerous, he says, but it might wake you up.

He and his colleagues have combined mouth taping not only with CPAP, but also with a mandibular advancement device for treating the disorder. The device slips into the mouth like a mouthguard and pushes the lower jaw forward, pulling the tongue off the back of the throat. But the device can cause people to breathe through their mouths, potentially rendering the treatment less effective, Wellman says.

In a study of 21 people with sleep apnea, Wellman’s team covered participants’ lips with clear adhesive strips made by SomniFix, a Maryland manufacturing company that supported the work. Combining the strips with the mouthguard-like device offered an improvement over the device alone, reducing the number of times people stopped breathing per hour, Wellman’s team reported in 2022. It was “a small improvement,” he points out. “We need a bigger study.”

Bigger trials are needed to test mouth taping’s efficacy

That seems to be a common denominator of mouth taping research to date. It’s all small preliminary studies, Wellman says. “We don’t have the large clinical trials … that’s what’s missing.”

A 2015 study found that just a porous patch on the mouth alone helped treat mild sleep apnea and snoring. And a study last year on a different kind of tape reported something similar. But these studies were tiny, with just 30 participants or less. The lack of data from larger trials means that experts’ opinions on mouth taping may be all over the map, Wellman says. “When you ask a doctor about it, you’re going to get all different answers,” he says.

Ear, nose and throat specialist Erich Voigt, for one, isn’t convinced mouth taping is beneficial — or even safe. The trend “definitely raises a few red flags,” says Voigt, of NYU Langone Health. He’s concerned people may impede their breathing or accidentally inhale the tape and choke, though no large studies have tracked this yet.

Mouth taping might be worthwhile in the right scenario, Voigt says, but he advises a cautious approach for anyone trying a new health fad from TikTok. “It’s probably a good idea [for people] to talk about it with their health care provider before just doing it themselves.” 

Meghan Rosen headhsot

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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