All of us would probably like to know where we come from, and whether we're susceptible to diseases or conditions linked to our family's health history.
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to that sort of information, usually because their ancestry isn't well documented. However, thanks to the advent of DNA testing kits over the past few years, people can, for the first time, use science - at home and relatively inexpensively - to learn more about their ethnic roots, genotype, traits, health risks, and more. The problem is, there are so many options to pick from.
It's hard to determine which is better. It depends on your budget and what you want to get from a kit. If you search for "DNA testing kits" on Google right now, you will be served up millions of results, some of which you may have heard of thanks to TV adverts, but many of them will leave you scratching your heads. To make it easier for you, we've detailed the most popular ones.
What is a DNA testing kit?
DNA testing kits do a wide range of things. Some let you know if you're predisposed to genetic diseases, while others help find where in the world you come from, and may even connect you with relatives. Either way, for this guide, we will cover tests that you can take at home, where you either swab the inside of your cheek or spit into a tube to submit your DNA for testing.
Some DNA test providers, like ancestry-related ones, maintain databases for members, allowing them to build family trees and find and connect with other relatives. Usually, customers can opt-out of making their DNA data accessible to other members. However, when trying to identify the Golden State killer in 2018, law enforcement was able to easily access one of these types of databases.
Doing so helped police to find and arrest the perpetrator. And while that is good news, it raised a whole host of issues and concerns over how law enforcement was able to use data from an unwitting DNA kit user to catch their man. So, if you permit your data from DNA tests to be stored and shared either for genealogical, research, or other purposes, be advised your privacy is no longer ensured.
Also, at any time, law enforcement and government agencies in the US can try to legally access your genetic personal information.
Which DNA testing kits are the best?
23andMe | What it can do:
23andMe analyses your DNA for information about your ancestry and relations. It's collected DNA from more than three million people so far, and gave each of those customers detailed online reports about their ancestry - diving into their maternal and paternal lines, even telling them how much Neanderthal DNA they have - and provided access to even more, optional DNA-based health tests.
23andMe offers two kits: Health and Ancestry and Ancestry. The Health and Ancestry plan includes testing for genetic health risks (like Parkinson's), carrier status for conditions (like cystic fibrosis). It also has a Wellness and Traits report, the first of which determines your genetic predisposition for, for instance, being above weight, while the latter measures your likelihood of hair loss, etc.
The Ancestry one is focused on your ancestry. You can see your extended DNA family and any famous relatives (you can choose whether to allow others to find you by name, and whether to show your name to potential matches). It also shows you a list of countries of ancestry and top surnames among your relatives. You can also see how much Neanderthal DNA you have in your DNA.
Your results will be sorted into a few categories: Ancestry Composition, Maternal Line, Paternal Line, and Neanderthal Ancestry, while an Ancestry Overview page gives a graph of your ancestry composition and a big-picture view of all the results from your sample.
23andMe | How it works:
When you order a 23andMe kit, you need to agree to the company's terms of service. Then, when you receive it, you activate it using the barcode and set up an account with 23andMe. After, you must provide your name, date of birth, and sex and acknowledge "you may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate" (like whether your granddad is really blood-related).
23andMe's collection kit asks you not to eat, drink, smoke cigs, chew gum, brush your teeth, or use mouthwash 30 minutes before providing your sample. It requires you to spit into a tube until your sample hit the fill line. Then, close the lid, which releases the stabilisation liquid into the sample, slip the tube into the included plastic bag, and place it in the prepaid envelope and mail it.
Your results should arrive in six to eight weeks.
23andMe | Is your data private?
23andMe said it will "not sell, lease or rent your individual-level information" to any third party or for research purposes without your "explicit consent". However, it does "use and share aggregate information with third parties" to perform "business development, initiate research, and send you marketing emails". Its privacy page has more details about how it handles data.
23andMe also said your information "may be subject to disclosure pursuant to a judicial or other government subpoena, warrant or order, or in coordination with regulatory authorities". If such a situation arises, 23andMe will comply, and it will notify you - unless the legal request prevents it from doing so. Check out its transparency report to see all the government requests for data it has received.
AncestryDNA | What it can do:
Ancestry launched one of the first DNA testing kits for consumers. It analyses DNA and integrates that data with your family tree if you're a subscriber to the service. Even if your not, it tests your DNA to determine ancestry. Ancestry has collected DNA from more than five million people. Although you won't get health information, you will learn how much Neanderthal DNA you have.
Your results include an online dashboard that shows you a chart with an ethnicity estimate and DNA matches with others. You can view a map of where your ancestors lived, learn more about your ethnicity matches and their countries, see how you compare to the native population. Depending on your genetic makeup, you might also see "trace regions" in your ethnicity estimate, etc.
AncestryDNA is a fun way to learn about (or confirm) your ancestry. If you need any help, you can call Ancestry support seven days a week or access its forums and FAQ section. And, if you cancel your account, you can download your DNA report and keep it with you forever.
AncestryDNA | How it works:
Ancestry ships you a collection kit. Your kit should arrive within about a week or so. When you receive the kit, the first thing you need to do is activate it online using a unique code on the kit. You'll need to submit your name and click Activate. Next, you can link your kit to your Ancestry family tree (if you Ancestry detects a match with other members, it'll compare it with your family tree).
Once you've finished activating your kit and setting up your account, you need to spit into a plastic tube up to its fill line. You can't eat, drink or smoke 30 minutes before providing your sample. Next, you ditch the funnel and screw on the included cap to release a stabilising fluid. Then, you shake the tube, place it in the included collection bag, put that in a prepaid shipping box, and mail it.
You'll receive confirmation of receipt with an activation number and info about how the results should arrive in the next six to eight weeks. However, in many cases, the results are ready in a mere two weeks. An adult who takes a DNA test is considered the owner of that test, though they can allow other family members or friends to manage the results and allow others to view them as well.
AncestryDNA | Is your data private?
Ancestry said your data is stored in a secured database that is protected from "unauthorized access from those outside of AncestryDNA" and that your private info like name and address is not accessible by its lab. A full breakdown of the personal data that Ancestry collects on you is available here, while the company's privacy webpage goes into detail about how it tries to secure all your data.
Ancestry also said it "does not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement", and it requires all government agencies seeking data to follow "valid legal process", which means it complies with legal requests. However, Ancestry does not allow law enforcement to use its services to "investigate crimes". Check out its transparency report to see all the government requests for data it has received.
HomeDNA | What it can do:
HomeDNA lets you find out about your ancestry, paternity, or even the genetic makeup of your pets. You'll see information about gene pools and family migration patterns, and more. Here are the different tests available: GPS Origins Ancestry Test, DNA Origins Maternal Lineage, DNA Origins Paternal Lineage, HomeDNA Starter Ancestry Test, and Vitagene Health Report and Ancestry.
For this guide, we'll look at the GPS Origins Ancestry Test, which can determine the exact town or village where different groups of your ancestors met. The test analyses 800,000 autosomal genetic markers, 862 reference populations, and 36 gene pools. HomeDNA doesn't attempt to trace you all the way back to Africa, like other tests can do, though it still has plenty of detail.
It doesn't search for genetic matches, like many other services, and it doesn't have family tree software. But it can do health and breed-identification tests for dogs, specific tests for humans (like healthy weight and skincare), and personalised nutrition and fitness advice. It takes a deep look at your ancestors, including your ancestors lived post-Africa and where they migrated over time.
The company also has a number you can call, if you have any questions about how to parse together the data from your results.
HomeDNA | How it works:
HomeDNA's extraction kit contains four cotton swabs and two envelopes. You swab each cheek twice, put the swabs in an envelope, close it up, and place that envelope into the prepaid envelope. No stabilising liquid and there's no eating, drinking, or chewing required. Your sample does not have your name on it. There is a unique barcode that maintains your privacy and makes it easier to track.
Before shipping your sample, you must register your kit online to view your results. The prepaid envelope will take up to 10 days to reach the HomeDNA lab, and the results take another two to three weeks to process. You'll get a notification when your results were ready. At that point, you log into HomeDNA's website and can either view the results or download the raw data to keep forever.
HomeDNA | Is your data private?
HomeDNA said that, with the exception of legal paternity tests, it destroys all samples. It also does not maintain a publicly accessible database, and it does not "share hare or sell any customer’s data with companies or entities that are not connected to HomeDNA’s parent company, DDC". A closer look at the company's privacy statement confirmed that it does share your information with business partners and affiliates.
HomeDNA also said it will disclose your information to law enforcement if it believes that such disclosure is necessary to "comply with relevant laws or to respond to subpoenas or warrants served". It will also do so to "protect or defend" its rights and for "risk management purposes".
MyHeritage DNA | What it can do:
MyHeritage DNA offers DNA testing with free family tree matching. You can view where your ancestors lived, and your results can be expanded if you create a family tree. You can get access to tools such as smart matching, which finds matching profiles in other members' family trees and record matching. MyHeritage claims to sort through billions of historical records. It does offer its own free family tree software, too.
With that, you can invite other relatives to collaborate on the family tree, too. When you click on the notification email to access your results, you'll see a spinning globe set to regional music and a map that reveals your results, with highlighted areas indicated your ethnicity (their percentages are listed to the left). You can zoom in and out of the online map to view your ethnic roots, but there won't be any deep data.
There also won't be any far-reaching Neanderthal DNA information. So, if you want to see where ancestors lived and what may have caused them to migrate to another part of the globe at some point, you should look to other services like AncestryDNA and others.
MyHeritage DNA | How it works:
To order a kit, simply provide your year of birth and sex. You'll receive your kit within a week, at which point you can register it by adding its barcode to your account. Kits are tracked by number. Once you register it, you can do the swab part. This DNA kit has two swabs and two vials filled with a stabilising solution. Once you've swabbed a sample, break off the plastic part and place the cotton swab in the solution.
Once you have put them in the vials, slip the vials into the provided envelope. You must provide postage, unfortunately. Your results should be available within a few weeks. MyHeritage has a help center with more information if you need help with understanding your DNA results.
MyHeritage DNA | Is your data private?
MyHeritage DNA also said it provides "genetic personal information" to law enforcement when required by a valid court order or subpoena.
Which is the absolute best?
23andMe Health and Ancestry does a deep-dive on not only your health but also your ancestry. However, if you are an Ancestry.com user, AncestryDNA will look deep into your past and link you up with other members' trees. Both are top-tier services that far outweigh rivals.