Health

TikTok Wellness Influencers Want You to Tape Your Mouth Shut

"Shark Tank" endorsed an "airway health" startup, only to pull out of the deal. But the claims that nasal breathing is a catchall health solution keep going.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, United States
October 27, 2020, 12:00pm
Screenshots from the TikTok account of SomniFix, an adhesive sleep aid.
Screenshots via TikTok, graphic via Canva

Scroll quickly through the grid of the official Instagram account for SomniFix, a disposable sleep aid, and you’ll find photos of domestic bliss in brick and beige, scenic vistas, and bohemian bedrooms seemingly ripped from a Pinterest inspo board. But tucked among the lifestyle pics are filtered photos of people sleeping while wearing a small, translucent strip of… something… that seals their lips shut. 

SomniFix is, in short, tape for the mouth, designed to help the wearer sleep better by redirecting breath through the nose. At $19.97 for a four-week supply, SomniFix promises the elusive good night’s sleep that, according to the CDC, one in three adults say they aren’t getting. (The CDC does not, however, list mouth-taping among its “tips for better sleep.”) On its website, SomniFix claims its product is clinically proven to promote nose breathing, reduce snoring, improve compliance with continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machines commonly used for issues like sleep apnea, and improve overall sleep quality. It also boasts thousands of customer reviews, the vast majority of which give the product a gleaming five-star rating. 

The company also touts an April 2019 Shark Tank appearance by co-founder Nicholas Michalak on its website and in its social media profiles. Michalak demonstrates SomniFix on FUBU CEO Daymond John, who outs himself as a prolific snorer. John hams it up on camera, faking a snore, then struggling against taped-shut lips.

Michalak ultimately walked away from the pitch with a verbal deal with Mark Cuban, who saw potential for the product if marketed to athletes (though studies conflict on how beneficial nasal breathing is for this demographic).

Cuban told VICE via email last week, rather ominously, “our investment never closed.”

Mouth taping is a relatively new alternative health phenomenon whose proponents claim myriad benefits, based on an assertion that nasal breathing is overall “better” for us. Alongside SomniFix, retailers like Amazon and Walmart sell adhesive products that are also designed “for mouth breathers,” promising “instant snoring relief.” A book about nasal breathing, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, was released in May and became an NYT bestseller; James Nestor, the author, spoke in July on The Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast notorious for peddling unchecked and often harmful misinformation and health-related delusions. As of publication time, the YouTube version of their interview has 2.3 million views. SomniFix even featured a clip of this interview on their TikTok account. 

Breathing through one’s nose does provide extra air filtration, and it humidifies and warms air that passes through the respiratory system in a way the mouth does not. Research has linked habitual mouth breathing to gum disease and ear and throat disease, among other things, due to the fact that it dries out the mouth and creates an environment where bacteria thrive. There are also centuries of yogic and ayurvedic nose-breathing practices with a robust amount of research on their positive physiological effects to back them up.

But through its social media marketing, SomniFix goes even further, claiming that mouth taping can lead to weight loss, changes in face shape, and improved athletic performance, claims with little to no support from scientific research. 

Albert Rizzo, a pulmonologist and the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, told VICE that nasal breathing and mouth taping have established benefits, but only for a specific subset of patients, and he is skeptical about what it can do for the general public. “I think nature has meant us to breathe mainly through our nose when we can,” Rizzo said. “There's no question that the nasal passages are an important part of the airway, along with the bronchial tube and the lungs.” But he has primarily encountered mouth taping as a way to improve CPAP compliance for people treating their sleep apnea. “To be honest, I’m not sure I know of any study showing there is benefit for people who have no sleep apnea,” he said. “It may help from the standpoint of snoring, so it may help their bed partners—and it may allow the wearer to get a better night's sleep.”

But that doesn’t extend to all of SomniFix’s claims, or the claims of all TikTok’s mouth taping proponents. 

“I was caught a little off guard by thinking that airway health is treated by closing your mouth and taping it shut. That's a little bit of a reach for me,” said Rizzo. (SomniFix did not respond to a request for comment from VICE regarding these claims.)

While Rizzo said that sleeping better could potentially impact weight loss, or inhibit weight gain, he did not see another possible connection between nasal breathing and “exhaling” fat. 

“Closing your mouth during the night, is that helping you lose weight during the night? I find that a little bit hard to believe,” he said. “Unless you're saying you get a better quality sleep that way. It boils down to the fact that if a device like that improves quality of sleep, it can be helpful in many aspects.” Whether or not mouth tape universally improves “quality of sleep,” however, has not been established.

TikTok isn’t the only place where nasal breathing has become a trendy quick-fix solution to a whole range of problems. Some dentists, orthodontists, and ear, nose, and throat doctors claim nasal breathing has been severely underpromoted by the medical establishment, and that at-home treatments like mouth taping are primed to remedy that blind spot. Howard Hindin, a dentist who founded the Foundation for Airway Health in 2012, told VICE that while his organization is “product agnostic,” he strongly encourages the patients he sees to take at-home steps like mouth-taping to reroute their breathing to the nose. Hindin referred to mouth taping as a “tool” in the arsenal of someone looking to improve their “airway health.”  

Steven Park, an ear, nose, and throat specialist who wrote a blog post in October about his personal experience with DIY mouth-taping, said the practice helped him sleep better. But as for the question of evidence behind his personal findings, he wrote, “What does science say… Disappointingly, very little. There are tons of blogs, articles, and videos on why and how to do it, but only anecdotal advice.”

These beliefs still fall outside of the medical consensus, at a troubling time when wellness scams are racing ahead of scientists’ and doctors’ ability to debunk them, and distrust in the medical establishment is at an all-time high. Yet Hindin hopes his awareness work with the Airway Health Foundation will force the medical establishment to adopt his views on nasal breathing due to pressure from patients.

“Healthcare changes when the public demands change,” Hindin said. He hopes to compel people to ask their doctors about the benefits of nasal breathing, mouth taping, and nasal dilators infused with essential oils

None of VICE’s sources mentioned any specific harm that might come from lots of people putting stickers over their mouths when they sleep (unless, like SomniFix warns, they’re unable to breathe through their noses). But neither did any of them build a sufficient case for pouring money into such a product, on the off chance it could help with any of the issues that SomniFix and mouth taping advocates claim to address. “I think this is kind of a lifestyle choice that is determined based on whether people feel it benefits them or not,” Rizzo said. “And I'm a big advocate for, if you're going to do something like that, at least discuss it with your physician.”

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