If you’ve ever been curious about your own personal heritage, perhaps you’ve considered picking up an at-home DNA test kit. They’re affordable, easy to use and robust in terms of what kind of information they can offer you about your ancestry, genealogical health care concerns and a portrait of you in general.
There are a wide variety of tests currently available, and it can be difficult to select which one is right for you. Common worries arise as well, like whether these tests are private and secure, what kind of information they offer and accuracy.
To help assuage some of these fears, we’ve spoken with experts to answer these common inquiries. We’ve also listed a few reliable options you can choose from to make figuring out which at-home DNA test is the right one for you as easy as possible.
Here are our findings, plus expert commentary from those who know the industry well.
What exactly do DNA testing kits do?
At-home DNA testing kits work in a myriad of ways to offer a variety of information about your heritage, health care history and other factors you may not have known about yourself otherwise.
DNA testing kits analyze individuals’$2 22 autosomes, or the numbered chromosomes in a person’s genetic makeup. They take inventory of the various potential ethnicities that may be present in your DNA while working to pinpoint common genetic traits like diseases you could be predisposed or at risk to. You’ll receive charts and maps to track this information based on your test results.
Heritage and health care factors are two of the biggest things DNA testing companies consider, but there are others as well. You can opt for Y-DNA testing to focus on your paternal lineage, mitochondrial testing to test only your maternal lineage and variations on those two. Your test results will vary, of course, based on which company you choose.
How does at-home testing work?
When you receive your at-home DNA test kit, you need to read over the instructions that come with the package. Each one has different setup instructions that may vary significantly, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Each provider will require different instructions, but this is the basic gist of what’s required. Many tests will require you to register your kit online before proceeding with any data collection. This will allow you to review your results after you ship off your kit for analysis. Once that’s done, you’ll be expected to collect a sample that must be sent to the company of your choice. This typically means swabbing your cheek or offering a saliva sample. You will need to put your sample into a special container, box it up with the provided materials and ship it to the lab for testing.
Once you’ve shipped your test, you’ll have to spend some time waiting for your results. Generally, results can take six to eight weeks to process, but most kits allow you to track your sample’s progress so you’re not left in the dark. You should have access to an online portal that will be updated with the information you’ve requested. That way, they’re private, easy to find in one place and shareable should you decide you want to show others your findings. Again, this will all vary by provider, so be sure to read over the instructions included with your own personal testing kit before proceeding with the collection and tracking processes.
Is it secure to use at-home DNA testing kits?
Generally, submitting your DNA to testing organizations is a secure practice, as there are standards in place to ensure both your security and privacy.
“Typically, DNA testing companies follow standard security practices such as encryption of stored data and limiting data access to essential personnel,” says George Church, professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard University. “Some DNA testing companies, such as 23andMe, have also received ISO certifications for following best practices to securely manage information.” This means that the data you send the company of your choice will typically ensure it’s stored in a secure manner while also limiting access to only those who need it.
However, it’s not always an industry standard for every testing company to go to “great lengths” to protect customer privacy beyond the most basic of principles.
“For most DNA testing companies, it’s impossible to tell what exactly is being done to protect data privacy,” cautions Church, noting that companies do not always make it explicit how they’re utilizing your information. That’s why it’s imperative you do research on each individual company’s fine print, such as their privacy practices, what happens to your DNA when it’s received, how it’s stored, who has access to it and what kind of purposes it can ultimately be used for. If something feels off or makes you uncomfortable, you shouldn’t proceed.
“Company policies and their security/privacy features vary greatly,” says Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice. “If you’re concerned about privacy and security, you should research the specific company and their policies and procedures.”
Is it a good idea in general to use at-home DNA testing kits?
This is a question you’ll ultimately have to answer for yourself, though experts who have weighed in on the matter agree that there are important factors to consider before consenting to sharing your information. For one, it’s imperative to consider that sharing access to your DNA could have certain ramifications that you may be unaware of, so understanding how your data is used and what it could be utilized for in the future is integral to the process.
“Giving someone access to your DNA is, at least in America, something that cannot be undone,” says Jerry Gamblin, manager of security and compliance at Kenna Security. “Unless you understand the data-sharing agreements of the company you use, in the future your data may end up being used for reasons that are not presently obvious, and that could have negative consequences.”
If you have done your research and feel comfortable with the testing agency you’ve ultimately selected, learning more about your heritage by way of sharing your DNA with companies with an established track record and an easy-to-understand transparency policy should make the process no more daunting than selecting a health care provider you trust.
Are there any potential risks to using at-home DNA tests?
As far as imminent health risks or anything of that nature, at-home DNA test kits are safe and simple to use. If you have considered all potential privacy and security issues, then the only real concern left is whether or not using a kit may reveal information to you that you may not have been expecting. This could take an emotional toll that could be concerning for some users.
“There is the possibility that a consumer DNA test can reveal information that you are not necessarily prepared for, like revealing new relatives from an ancestry test,” says National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) President-Elect and Consumer Genomics expert Sara Riordan. “It’s important to consider what you could learn and the potential ramifications of this information before ordering.”
You should also keep in mind that these tests are almost never 100% accurate, so if you plan on using them to either diagnose health issues or make moves based on your ancestry, you may wish to speak to a counselor or medical professional instead of relying on DNA tests to fill in the blanks.
“If you have a health-related concern, like a personal or family history of disease, I recommend speaking with a health professional like a genetic counselor before ordering the test,” explains Riordan. “A genetic counselor can help you understand, based on your health questions or concerns and based on the science behind the test, if a particular consumer DNA test is right for you.”
How do I select an at-home testing kit?
Choosing the kit that makes the most sense for you will depend on a variety of factors. This will include the type of information you’re looking to uncover, whether you’re going to be basing any health care decisions off of what you do find, cost, ease of use and other elements that will ultimately require you to do the most research you can before locking in a purchase.
Choosing the best at-home DNA test kit for you is a process you’ll need to base on these elements and more, including aforementioned potential security and data concerns for each individual company. We’ve laid out some potential options you might choose from below based on multiple factors.
AncestryDNA Kit ($99; ancestry.com)
AncestryDNA offers one of the most popular kits on the market to assess DNA. It will work to match your genetic makeup to groups found in over 500 regions around the world. Results will be made available online about six to eight weeks after submitting material to be tested.
Professor Church suggests an “established brand” like AncestryDNA for a “basic, cheap ancestry test.” Plus, it’s one of the more trustworthy outfits offering tests, Church attests.
“Implementing comprehensive data security procedures can be expensive,” advises Church. “Established DNA testing companies like AncestryDNA have the necessary funding to provide better security.”
This test is more focused on genealogical history than competition like 23andMe, and you will likely have access to finding more relatives with this service than other kits. Plus, you get access to Ancestry’s robust set of tools that allow you to trace, track and map out your ancestry to put it in a more accessible format. In short, it’s excellent for building family trees.
AncestryDNA’s privacy stance is to limit the amount of individuals who see your results. You must opt into being listed as a DNA match. If you do not, matches will be unable to tell who you are or view your results. Otherwise, your matches will be able to see your ethnicity results and matching regions you share. You can choose which DNA results to share with specific family members as well.
Samples are tested via third-party testing labs. Your identity is separated from your sample and given an activation code only for tracking. Your results and sample are stored within the company database. You must opt into having your results shared with the Ancestry Human Diversity Project for further analysis into human evolution, population and genetic information. You may request to have your sample destroyed at any time as well as have your account and test results deleted.
3-in-1 Living DNA Ancestry Test ($99; livingdna.com)
If you’re looking for a test without the bells and whistles other providers offer, the 3-in-1 Living DNA Ancestry Test should do nicely. It offers ancestry tracing for up to 15 generations back as well as options for you to trace your maternal and paternal lineage. If you’re curious how you fare with other testers who might have received similar results, Living DNA also offers a package with these results that breaks down each point in your ancestry with an explanation and additional context throughout history.
The reason the service bills itself as a “3-in-1 test” is that it analyzes your more recent family ancestry as well as your maternal and paternal lines. This allows Living DNA to look more deeply into your ancestry, so if you’re trying to build out a more robust look at your family tree, this service could work perfectly in tandem with other services like Ancestry so you can have the most complete portrait of your distant relatives possible.
If you do agree to your DNA being used for research, which will include your genetic, phenotypic and ancestry information, Living Data states it will be used to generate your reports and to provide Family Matching services with your consent.
Your sample will be stored securely with a special bar code for identification. Your information for the bar code is stored separately and does not share your name or other identifying information with the laboratory to limit the number of people in contact with your genetic data. You may request that Living DNA destroy your sample at any time. Otherwise, it will be stored for 10 years after it’s provided.
Health + Ancestry Service from 23andMe ($199; 23andme.com)
Like AncestryDNA, 23andM3 is a brand you might be familiar with. Marc McDermott, genealogist and owner of Genealogy Explained, says, “23andMe is the go-to for health testing.”
23andMe is a multifaceted testing service like AncestryDNA, and as such it will offer a litany of information about the sample you send in. It includes three tests that Ancestry doesn’t: genetic health, carrier status and wellness testing. It will also focus heavily on comprehensive traits testing for a more complete picture as well.
You’ll be given a map of where your family has migrated over the years, information about potential illnesses you may be predisposed to, insight into how your DNA affects particular traits and much more. This testing service offers a variety of tidbits of information that should satisfy most looking for this type of DNA testing, and it’s from an established name in the arena.
23andMe states that you can choose whether or not to have your data stored, whether you want it visible to other 23andMe members or whether you want to participate in the service’s DNA Relatives tool that can help connect relatives via genetic materials.
Your saliva, which collects genetic, phenotypic and familial information, is assigned a randomized customer identification number and identified via bar code to lessen the number of people who see your private information. You need to opt in to share your private data, and even then your genetic information is stripped of identifying information.
Unless you consent to having your sample stored with 23andMe, your DNA will automatically be destroyed after analysis. You can have it stored by opting in to do so.