Molly K. McLaughlin is a New York-based writer and editor with more than a decade of experience covering technology. She has tested and reviewed all sorts of software, mobile apps, and gadgets. Before launching her freelance business, she was an editor at PC Magazine, covering consumer electronics, followed by a stint at ConsumerSearch.com, a revie... See Full Bio
Most direct-to-consumer DNA test companies warn that the tests may reveal things you wish you didn’t know about your family. For example, you could find out that one of the people who raised you isn’t your biological parent or that there’s an entire branch of your family you didn’t know about. There isn’t a way to prepare for a shock like that, but you can opt out of a company’s family-matching services if you’d rather not know.
The DNA tests we reviewed either require a saliva or cheek cell sample. Saliva-collecting kits include a tube that’s marked with a fill line and sample number. The tube often has a liquid-filled cap with a stabilizer that acts as a preservative to protect your DNA from degradation during transport. Cheek swab sample kits include one or two swabs for scraping the insides of your cheeks for 30 seconds to a minute to collect cheek cells and some sort of container to place the used swabs into after collection. This prevents contamination. Our testers found upsides to both types of kits but generally preferred saliva collection kits, even though they took longer.
An ancestry DNA test uses a saliva sample to determine which areas of the world your DNA can be traced back to. DNA kits have become very popular during the last few years. This has led to many people having numerous questions. You may be wondering if your genetic information will be used for research or sold and how this impacts your privacy. You may also be concerned regarding the accuracy of this test or have numerous additional questions. The first thing you must realize is the question of your DNA is complex and there may not be a simple answer. The majority of people in the world have DNA from numerous different regions. You may perceive this combination as unique or you may see it is odd. Either way, you need to be open and prepared for a surprise.

Uploading my Raw AncestryDNA file to the free GedMatch service, immediately displayed my known Italian, Scottish, Welsh and English heritage along with French that I had been hoping to find to confirm a verbal family history plus Irish, German and Swedish which were a pleasant surprise that I will enjoy trying to discover which branch of the tree they belong to! I have also uploaded the DNA file to other free services, MyHeritage that also shows the Mediterranean connection along with LivingDNA whose results I am still waiting for. All these services also include cousin matches who share dna so you end up with a much bigger pool of possible matches than Ancestry alone.
Thank you for this webpage! It is very insightful. I wish I had found it earlier. I did the DNA test through 23andMe, a doctor’s office already had me DNA checked for health (Medical DNA Labs in Tampa, Florida). I am wanting to know more about my genealogy and the report I received from 23andMe shows most concentration from the British Isles so now I will probably do ancestry and maybe Living DNA. You did a fine job in explaining everything, again thanks!
I would like to know about the paternal side of my father’s family. My problem is that there are no living males. (My father’s sister had a son that is still living, however, if he does a Y-dna test I believe that will only give out HIS father’s information). I wonder if I should have this male cousin take the mtDNA test instead. That way I could at least find out more about the maternal side of my father’s family. Any advice?
It could be that, in the main, genetic-testing kits such as these could, if promoted and used responsibly, end up zoned completely away from legitimate science and medicine and placed where perhaps they belong, firmly in the lifestyle-extra zone, if and when people think they’re “worth it”. Though, somewhat tellingly, when I ask Newman if he thinks that any of the genetic testing kits are worth buying, he instantly says: “No. I’d say, go to the cinema, watch some sport. Spend the money on something nice, something life-enhancing.”
When I took my first DNA test in 2016 I was disappointed, in part because I didn’t do my research, so my goal in this review is help others avoid that scenario. Beyond ancestry tests, there are companies that recommend wines or exercise regimens based on your DNA. With all the available options, it’s easy to default to a recognizable name, which isn’t necessarily bad. But certain tests do specific things better. Our goal is to match your expectations with the test that fits best.
Some of the companies providing ancestry DNA testing have an option that will reveal information regarding any individual with similar SNP’s. It is even possible to acquire a list of individuals who may be included in the ancestry of your family. Once permission has been given, they are able to contact you and you can contact them as well. This may sound entertaining and harmless at first, but raises a lot of questions about what information people may not be ready to hear. You may already know specifically where you come from. Now imagine if you found out your real mother was actually your grandmother. Perhaps you were raised as you birth mother’s sister. You have to ask yourself if you could handle that type of information. Prior to signing up for an ancestry DNA service, you must be aware of all the potential implications that may be revealed.
Health & Wellness tests: There are a ton of health and wellness DNA tests. We found several specifically oriented to dieting and weight loss, including embodyDNA, Vitagene, DNAFit and the several options available through the Helix marketplace. While there definitely are some links between DNA and factors that contribute to weight, we advise taking these diet plans with a grain of salt, as DNA science is still a relatively young field. We similarly advise caution for the multitude of non-diet health and wellness DNA tests, which offer insights into your sleep, food sensitivities, and vitamin and mineral levels. And double that for medical information found in consumer DNA kit test results. While medical insights learned from taking an at-home DNA test may be interesting, it’s best not to take them too seriously. If you have a concern about a genetic predisposition to a disease, it’s best to talk to your doctor instead of relying on a direct-to-consumer kit.
23andMe started out by testing for genetic markers of diseases and medical conditions before rolling that back in response to the governmental concerns. It has since started slowly adding more health-related features with approval from the FDA. In April, 23andMe got approval to offer risk analysis for ten genetically linked diseases. The company now offers two options: Health + Ancestry ($199) and Ancestry ($99). The Health + Ancestry plan includes testing for genetic health risks and carrier status, as well as reports on your genetic weight, hair loss, and other traits.
Hi Dianne, First thing first, thanks for your comment. “he only test that can give information about recent relatives ( 5 generations back only) is the autosomal test” – autosomal test is indeed a DNA test that gives you the info regarding your relatives, both from the paternal and maternal lineage. We clearly specified it in the article. Ancestry.com, our best-rated provider, offer this test in their Ancestry DNA test. Regarding the accuracy of the time frame you specified, there is indeed a diminishing marginal utility of accuracy as you go back deeper into the past (generation wise). According to one of our most trusted sources (University College of London), the accuracy is 10 generations back and not 5 as you specified (Please provide a source to your number, so we would be able to check it and revise if needed). 10 generation back is a quite long time span – 300 years (more or less). “The tests that say we are such-and-such % of this or that ethnicity isn’t very accurate because keep in mind, the wars and the spoils of wars that humans have been engaged in forever, mean we all have a mixture of genetic material from around the world” – Indeed, most of our ancestors were mixed due to historical events (wars, migration and etc.), but I don’t find how your statement is connected to the fact that this test is not accurate. DNA test is objective and gives you the naked facts. To conclude,

All this comes into sharp focus with the comprehensive kits such as the one provided by 23andMe: the one I drool into a tube for (incidentally, 23andMe doesn’t test for Huntington’s disease). Most people, like myself, have a low understanding of genetic variants, what phrases such as “higher risk” or “probability” actually mean or how to interpret our results correctly. Is it right that ordinary members of the public must navigate potentially frightening and/or misleading results alone?


Paternity tests: At-home paternity tests have been around much longer than other direct-to-consumer DNA tests. Most of them require you to collect cheek swab samples from a prospective father and child, which you then send off to a lab to determine paternity. For non-legal use, these tests can cost as little as $15, but tests that provide verified results that are admissible in court cost a few hundred dollars.


Next, you'll receive an email alert that your results are ready, and that's when the fun begins. Your results may not be as dramatic as those portrayed in TV ads, but you may find some surprises. One important note: Results are different for women and men. Women, who have the XX chromosome, can only trace back the maternal line. Men, having the XY chromosome, can track back the maternal and paternal line, painting a complete picture. If you're a woman, it's worth asking your brother, if you have one, to take a test and share the results. When some of these services ask for your sex when you order your kit, they simply want to know about your chromosomes.
Most of the services we tested use genotyping to read your DNA. Genotyping looks for specific markers in your genetic code. For something like ancestry testing, genotyping is effective because it identifies known variants in your DNA. Scientifically speaking, genotyping’s weakness is that it can only recognize previously identified markers. This is one reason DNA tests’ accuracy relies so heavily on the DNA database size; there must be enough information available and identified genetic variants in the database to recognize new customers’ markers.
There are mixed reactions to the use of ancestry DNA databases in criminal cases. On one hand, the rise of readily-available DNA information for millions of people has led to the arrests of several suspects related to long-cold cases, including the arrest of the Golden State Killer. On the other hand, law enforcement accessing private databases of genetic information from consumers raises several questions regarding privacy and ethical issues.
Next, you'll receive an email alert that your results are ready, and that's when the fun begins. Your results may not be as dramatic as those portrayed in TV ads, but you may find some surprises. One important note: Results are different for women and men. Women, who have the XX chromosome, can only trace back the maternal line. Men, having the XY chromosome, can track back the maternal and paternal line, painting a complete picture. If you're a woman, it's worth asking your brother, if you have one, to take a test and share the results. When some of these services ask for your sex when you order your kit, they simply want to know about your chromosomes.
As my dad and I have begun to explore our genealogy over the past seven years or so, we’ve found that our family is largely from Spain, which is no big surprise. Colombians have a wide range of ethnicities, which explains why many Colombians, including my mother, have white or fair skin with blue eyes. My dad also suspects we have German ancestry somewhere back there.
If you are concerned about your data being sold, your concern may be valid. In the past, records have been sold and de-anonymized. It is possible for genetic information to be used to find the name of the individual the DNA came from. This can happen regardless of whether or not your name was in the database. This scenario has occurred in the past.
If you wanted to learn about a specific side of your family, you must consider your genetic markers. A good example is if an individual wanted to know the origins of the African-American part of the family. Some luck would be required to retrieve this information. This person may be able to learn the percentage of genetic markers that favorably match certain regions of Africa. This is dependent on if different regions can be distinguished by the AIM’s. The most commonly used African AIM’s for determining African ancestry come from West Africa.
As it happens, most of the data on 23andMe seems harmless and fun. There are the “Neanderthal variants” (I have fewer of them than 58% of 23andMe customers, thank you very much), the bizarre earwax/earlobes-type data and, apparently, I have the muscle composition generally found in “elite athletes” (fancy). On the downside, my lineage isn’t as exotic as I’d hoped: 99.1% north-western Europe, of which 71% is British/Irish, with just 0.01% “Ashkenazi Jewish” to offset the genetic monotony. At £149, the 23andMe kit isn’t cheap and I’m quite tempted to demand a recount.
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