A simple at-home DNA test can tell you about your ancestry, medical predispositions, physical conditions and more.
With multiple different DNA tests that can tell you all about your genetics without you ever having to go to a doctor's office, it's never been easier or more affordable to try one out. Some DNA test services can shed light on your family history, genetic predisposition for diseases and physiological traits, ranging from your eye color to your tolerance for cilantro.
DNA testing, and genealogy more broadly, involves a complicated mixture of genetics, probabilities and guesswork. The best DNA testing services use different labs, algorithms, equipment and criteria to analyze your genetic material. You should expect some degree of overlap between analyses from different companies, however they may differ significantly. There's also an element of critical mass -- the larger the company's database, the larger the sample they use to analyze your results, and therefore the more accurate your test result should be.
We tried some of the top DNA testing services, assessing the breadth and depth of their offerings, methodologies, reputation and price. Below, we'll break down the best DNA test options on the market so you can find the one that will work best for you.
Founded in 2006, 23andMe is one of the pioneers of DNA testing for consumers. In 2017 it became the first such service to win the FDA's approval as a risk screener for diseases. It has become one of the most well-known DNA testing companies -- and well-funded, since taking in a $300 million stake from GlaxoSmithKline, which uses the company's customer data to research and design new drugs.
23andMe segments its analysis into three main categories -- health, ancestry and traits. The basic ancestry and traits test includes an analysis of your genetic makeup including your regions of origin, maternal and paternal lineage and Neanderthal ancestry. Once you opt in, the company's match database -- which has more than 10 million profiles -- will identify and offer to connect you with people who share a DNA match with you.
I found 23andMe's website and mobile app very easy to navigate and brimming with interesting, comprehensible information about both my ancestry and health as well as the science of genetics and genealogy. The main dashboard offers intuitive links to exploring your ancestry, learning about the genetic risks for health conditions, building out a family tree and connecting with relatives. Among all of the DNA tests I tried, 23andMe delivered the best introduction to my recent and ancient genealogy along with an analysis of my genetic health. The only real drawback is that it does not offer integrated access to historical documents.
Read more: Ancestry vs. 23andMe: Which DNA testing kit is best for tracing your family history?
23andMe does provide easy access to a full range of privacy preferences and consent options, however. (That noted, 23andMe's terms of service and privacy statement is among the most extensive, exceeding 20,000 words.) You can ask the company to store your saliva sample indefinitely for future testing or have them discard it. Having signed off when I first signed up, I subsequently changed my mind about giving the company permission to share my data with researchers outside of 23andMe, and was able to retract my consent with the click of a button.
Cost: Ancestry Service: $99, Health + Ancestry Service: $199, 23andMe Membership: $199 + $29 one year prepaid membership
23andMe best features:
Things to consider:
AncestryDNA's basic DNA kit service provides you with an "ethnicity estimate" derived from its proprietary sequencing techniques. It's noteworthy that the company's genetic testing, which is outsourced to Quest Diagnostics, is distinct from most other companies that use paternal Y chromosome and/or maternal mitochondrial DNA methodologies, and less is known about the particular criteria it uses.
AncestryDNA says its database contains more than 18 million profiles, making it the largest of all of the DNA test kit services. The company also maintains a powerful tool for searching through hundreds of historical document databases -- but any substantive research will quickly bring you to a paywall. Ancestry's databases are further bolstered by its partnership with FamilySearch.org, a genealogical records site run by the Mormon church.
An entry-level membership, which provides access to more than 6 billion records in the US, costs $119 for six months or $25 per month, after a free two-week trial. The "World Explorer" membership, for $40 per month, broadens your access to the company's 27 billion international records, and the "All Access" tier, starting at $60 per month, includes unlimited access to Ancestry's historical and contemporary database of more than 15,000 newspapers and military records from around the world.
23andMe maintains the advantage when it comes to introductory DNA testing for health risks and genetic screening. But AncestryDNA's service is particularly well-suited for leveraging an introductory DNA analysis into deep historical research to build out a family tree.
Read more: What AncestryDNA taught me about DNA, privacy and the complex world of genetic testing
Cost: US Directory: $24.99/month, World Explorer: $39.99/month, All Access: $59.99
AncestryDNA best features:
Things to consider:
Founded in 2000, FamilyTreeDNA offers a comprehensive suite of reports and interactive tools to analyze your DNA and build a family tree. With a credible claim to "the world's most comprehensive DNA matching database," FamilyTreeDNA offers all three types of tests -- autosomal DNA, Y-DNA and mtDNA. And it's the sole company to own and operate its own testing facility: The Gene-by-Gene genetic lab, located in Houston.
The company's entry-level "Family Finder" package usually costs $79. The test results provide information about your ethnic and geographic origins, identifies potential relatives and offers access to the company's massive DNA database. I paid $275 for a broad DNA test that included analysis of my mtDNA and Y-DNA -- tests that currently cost $159 and $119, respectively, when you buy them individually -- as well as the "Family Finder," the company's $79 autosomal test.
Though the user interface is a bit more complicated than what you'll find on other sites, FamilyTreeDNA provides the most complete suite of introductory tools of any provider I tested. For each type of test, you are presented with matches -- I got more than 22,000 for my autosomal DNA test -- a chromosome browser, migration maps, haplogroups and connections to ancestral reference populations, information about mutations and a link that allows you to download your raw data.
The company does its own DNA testing in house, processing and storing your sample in its lab. Posted prominently on the front page of its website is a promise that the company will never sell your DNA to third parties. Like most other companies, however, FamilyTreeDNA may use your aggregate genetic information for internal research and may comply with requests from law enforcement -- unless you opt out.
Cost: Family Finder + myDNA Wellness: $119, Family Finder: $79
FamilyTreeDNA best features:
Things to consider:
The three services above are our top choices for the best DNA test. But they weren't the only ones we tested. What follows are some additional options, none of which eclipsed the 23andMe, Ancestry or FamilyTreeDNA in any significant fashion.
Based in Israel, MyHeritage was founded in 2003, and like a number of other services profiled here, started out as a genealogy software platform. MyHeritage outsources its DNA analysis to FamilyTreeDNA.
MyHeritage offers a free tier of service that includes some basic family tree-building and access to excerpts of historical documents. The basic DNA testing and analysis service, includes a report of your genetic makeup across the company's 42 supported ethnicities, the identification of relatives and connections to them where possible.
In 2019, MyHeritage launched a health test similar to the one offered by 23andMe. As part of this effort, the company partnered with PWNHealth, a network of US physicians who oversee the process. I was required to complete a personal and family health history questionnaire -- it was 16 questions -- which was then ostensibly reviewed by a doctor. Though the company says it may recommend a "genetic counseling" session administered by PWNHealth, my health results were simply delivered along with my ancestry analysis.
I like MyHeritage's straightforward access to a range of comprehensible privacy preferences. Still, overall, I found MyHeritage's user interface far less intuitive and more difficult to navigate than others. It's one of the few companies to offer a comprehensive research database of historical documents, DNA analysis and health screening -- I found the integration among them to be a bit clumsy. In 2018, MyHeritage committed a security breach, exposing the email addresses and hashed passwords of more than 92 million users.
Living DNA describes itself as a "consumer genealogy DNA service that does not sell or share customers' DNA or data with third parties," which gives you a sense of its priorities -- or, at least, its sense of customers' concerns. LivingDNA's headquarters in the UK may also be a factor in its distinctive mission statement, as it is subject to the more stringent data and privacy regulations of the GDPR.
LivingDNA divides its offerings in a different way than others. The $59 autosomal DNA kit provides an overview of your ancestry in 80 geographical regions and information about maternal and paternal haplogroups and access to the company's genetic matching tool. The $69 "wellbeing package" includes reports about your physiological compatibility with vitamins, foods and exercise. And the $89 DNA ancestry and well-being package gives you all of it.
The company has a very limited family match database; a company representative declined to give me a specific number but said that it contained less than 1 million profiles. My wife, who took the test, returned exactly zero matches. So, if you're looking to identify and make connections with relatives, there are better choices in the market. That noted, LivingDNA has a very solid reputation for both the quality of its DNA analysis and privacy terms among experienced genealogists.
There are a number of companies -- including Full Genomes, Veritas Genetics, Nebula Genomics and Dante Labs -- that can sequence all of your DNA, otherwise known as your genome. This level of analysis is appropriate for advanced users only. Not only is it expensive -- these tests can run into the thousands of dollars, in some cases -- it requires a sophisticated understanding of both genetics and a range of technical tools required to explore and interpret your results.
The least expensive whole genome tests cost about $300. For example, Full Genome's 30X test -- which scans every targeted location of your genome 30 times on average -- is considered the standard for a clinical analysis. It costs $799.
For most people, the main rationale for sequencing the whole genome is to dive deep into your genetic health outlook. You can glean your personal risk factors for diseases, drug sensitivities and your status as a carrier; that is, what you might pass on to your kids. All of these efforts can also be undertaken -- to a less intense degree -- with some of the more affordable options outlined above. But whole genome sequencing provides a significantly more comprehensive, accurate and high-resolution analysis.
If you want to dip your toe into this realm. you might want to start with Nebula Genomics. You can also upload an existing DNA sequence from Ancestry or 23andMe's DNA database and get Nebula's reports at a reduced price.
HomeDNA sells testing kits under a number of brands, including DNA Origins, and has a retail presence at Walmart, CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens. The company offers a range of ancestry testing services starting at $69 for the maternal and paternal lineage kits. The "Starter Ancestry Test," which uses DNA markers to develop an estimate of your origins in Europe, Indigenous America, East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa -- and shows you the modern population groups that share your DNA. The $124 "Advanced Ancestry Test" expands the analysis to 80,000 autosomal genetic markets, 1,000 reference populations and 41 gene pools.
I'll note that the HomeDNA test kit contained no warning about not eating or drinking for any period of time prior to taking the test -- unlike every other kit I used. And of the four swabs the company sent, one broke. The test kit just didn't seem as rigorously hygienic as the others.
This company doesn't have a sterling reputation in the genetic genealogy world. When we recently spoke with Debbie Kennett, a genetic genealogist from University College London, she referenced the company's notoriety for delivering "bizarre results" and expressed doubt about the efficacy of its specialized tests for particular ethnic groups. HomeDNA did not respond to CNET's inquiry about its testing process or results.
HomeDNA reports don't stack up particularly well against those returned by other companies. Results are summarized on a single webpage, though you also get a PDF that certifies that you've "undergone DNA testing" and shows the continents and countries where your DNA originates. HomeDNA does not offer access to any matching databases -- so there's no obvious next step or any actionable data that comes with your results. Given this, I'd recommend choosing a different DNA testing service.
Claiming to have the most comprehensive database of African lineages, African Ancestry promises to trace its customers' ancestry back to a specific country and identify their "ethnic group origin." But a number of experienced genealogists have cited issues with this company's marketing claims and science.
Unlike most other companies, African Ancestry doesn't offer an autosomal DNA test. Instead, it offers an mtDNA test or a Y-DNA test (for males only). In contrast to your standard DNA analysis, African Ancestry's report doesn't provide the percentage of DNA that's likely to have originated across a range of regions. Instead, African Ancestry claims to trace your DNA to a specific region of Africa.
According to experts, however, African Ancestry's DNA tests come up short. As explained in a blog post by African American genetic genealogist Shannon Christmas, the company's methodology simply doesn't analyze a sufficient number of DNA markers to deliver on its marketing promises.
Furthermore, he writes, "Ethnicity is a complex concept, a concept not as rooted in genetics as it is in sociopolitical and cultural constructs. There is no DNA test that can assign anyone to an African ethnic group or what some refer to as an 'African tribe.'" African Ancestry isn't the only company that claims to be able to determine your ethnicity or "ethnic group of origin." But its claim to narrow things down to a single "tribe" of origin is overblown, as any African tribe would ostensibly contain multiple haplogroups.
In an email to CNET, African Ancestry responded: "African Ancestry makes it clear that ethnic groups are social and cultural groupings, not genetic ones. However, based on extensive genetic research of African lineages performed by African Ancestry's co-founder and Scientific Director (who holds a Ph.D. in Biology and specializes in human genetics), we find that contrary to laymen's beliefs, there are ethnic groups that share genetic lineages. Our results pinpoint genetic lineages that share the same genetics as our test takers. Given the vast number of lineages in our African Lineage Database, we are able to provide the ethnic groups of the people with that shared lineage."
The company's PatriClan Test analyzes eight Y-chromosome STRs and the YAP, which it says is a critical identifier for African lineages; and the MatriClan Test analyzes three regions of the mitochondrial DNA: HVS1, HVS2 and HVS3. But though these tests offer lower-resolution results than others, African Ancestry's services are considerably more expensive. The company's Y-DNA test and mtDNA tests cost $299 each -- or you can take them both, and get an eight-pack of "certificates of ancestry" and a four-pack of t-shirts, for $729.
On the plus side, African Ancestry says that it does not maintain a database of customer information and that it will not share or sell your DNA sequence or markers with any third party -- including law enforcement agencies. The company's terms and conditions run to just over 2,200 words, making them considerably more concise than the disclosure statements of most other companies we included in this roundup. And African Ancestry promises to destroy your DNA sample after your test results are delivered.
We did a lot of research into the DNA testing market, addressing each option based on its price, database size and the depth of their offerings. We also noted their methodologies and reputation. We also noted additional factors such as family matching and privacy policies.
If you're using a home DNA testing service, you're likely looking for one of three things:
Afraid of needles and drawing blood? Good news: That's not an issue with the best DNA tests. All you need to do is spit into a vial or rub a swab in your mouth -- all the genetic data needed for these tests is present in your saliva -- and ship the DNA sample to the company for analysis.
The reason that a saliva sample works as well as blood (or hair follicles or skin samples) is that your DNA -- which is short for deoxyribonucleic acid -- is present in all of them. It's the basic genetic code present in all of your cells that makes up your key attributes, from the color of your eyes to the shape of your ears to how susceptible you are to cholesterol.
The key terms you need to know when comparing DNA testing services are:
There are three types of DNA tests -- each with its own particular strengths, limitations and rationales.
Each testing company will give you an analysis of your DNA test results. These results could include your geographical origin -- some claim to be able to pinpoint a specific country, town or even "tribe" -- as well as your genetic ancestry composition and your susceptibility to particular genetic diseases. We should note that these tests don't serve a diagnostic purpose. A doctor-administered genetic test and a follow-up with a genetic counselor is important if you think you have a genetic disease. No online testing company offering results from a saliva sample can substitute for a health test administered by your doctor.
Certain companies will also serve up "matches" from their DNA databases, which will give you a head start on connecting with possible relatives and offer some degree of family-tree research support. AncestryDNA, for example, offers a subscription service that includes access to hundreds of databases containing birth, death and marriage announcements, census documents, newspaper archives and other historical records.
Some DNA companies sell tests designed for specific ethnicities or specialized kits that claim to shed light on your optimal skin care regimen or weight; others offer tests designed to identify the genetic makeup of your cat or dog. (Yes, you can get a dog DNA test.) The experts I spoke to were dubious of the efficacy and value of these tests, however, and recommended avoiding them.
Concerns over data privacy and security are well-founded, and experts warn that regulation, especially in the US, lags far behind the technology. You should also know that some DNA testing companies may share data with pharmaceutical companies and law enforcement agencies. Bottom line: Think critically before volunteering information about your health history and familial connections to any DNA testing company or organization.
Yes, DNA tests are the most accurate way to determine paternity of a child. Samples need to be collected from both the child and suspected parent to make a determination. For the best accuracy, you need a test that specifically checks for paternity not just ancestry.
Yes. Several companies sell dog DNA tests with the goal of helping you determine the breed of your animal and screen for possible genetic health issues.
Three popular brands are Wisdom Panel (for both dogs and cats), Embark (for dogs only), and Basepaws (for cats only).
David Gewirtz contributed to this story. The current version is a major update of past revisions and includes hands-on impressions of most of the services listed.