The best DNA tests can help you learn about your family history, genetic predisposition and traits, from your eye color to your tolerance for cilantro.
Updated Oct. 25, 2023 10:00 a.m. PT
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Learning about your genetic ancestry is as easy as using an at-home DNA test. The best DNA testing services use different labs, algorithms, equipment and criteria to analyze your genetic material.
Though you should expect some degree of overlap between analyses from different companies, the services also differ significantly. Not only that, but there's also an element of critical mass you should consider: The larger the company's database, the larger the sample it uses 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, reputations and prices. Below, we'll break down the best DNA test options on the market, so you can find the one that'll work best for you.
What is the best DNA test?
For the average person looking to dig into their genetics and traits, 23andMe is the best DNA test. With 23andMe, you get a well-rounded view of your DNA, with health, ancestry and trait information.
23andMe is a great DNA test option for beginners who don't want to dive deep into historical records. The app is easy to use, and all the information is available through the main dashboard. 23andMe gives you a lot of great details in a digestible format.
23andMe is arguably the most popular kit, and that's why it's our choice for the best DNA test for beginners. The analysis is segmented 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.
23andMe's website and mobile app are very easy to navigate, and they're brimming with comprehensible information about both ancestry and health, as well as the science of genetics and genealogy. The main dashboard offers intuitive links to information on exploring your ancestry, learning about genetic risks for health conditions, building out a family tree and connecting with relatives. Among all the DNA tests we tried, 23andMe delivered the best introduction to my recent and ancient genealogy, along with an analysis of my genetic health.
You have easy access to a full range of privacy preferences and consent options. You can ask the company to store your saliva sample indefinitely for future testing or have it discarded. Having signed off when we first signed up, we subsequently changed our minds about giving the company permission to share our data with researchers outside of 23andMe and was able to retract the consent with the click of a button.
AncestryDNA's service is particularly well suited for leveraging an introductory DNA analysis into deep historical research to build out a family tree. The 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 that of most other companies, which 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 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.
An entry-level membership provides access to more than 6 billion records in the US and includes a free two-week trial. The World Explorer membership broadens your access to the company's 27 billion international records. The All Access tier includes unlimited access to Ancestry's historical and contemporary database of more than 15,000 newspapers and military records from around the world.
FamilyTreeDNA offers all three types of DNA tests: autosomal DNA, Y-DNA and mtDNA. It's the sole company to own and operate its own testing facility, The Houston-based Gene-by-Gene genetic lab.
The user interface is a bit more complicated than what you'll find on other sites, but FamilyTreeDNA provides the most complete suite of introductory tools of any provider we tested. For each type of test, you're presented with matches; a chromosome browser; migration maps; haplogroups and connections to ancestral reference populations; information about mutations; and a link that lets you download your raw data.
The company's entry-level Family Finder package usually costs $79. The test results provide information about your ethnic and geographic origins, identify potential relatives and offer access to the company's massive DNA database. There is also a Maternal Ancestry test for $159, Paternal Ancestry for $119 and a Paternal Ancestry in Great Detail package for $449.
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Other DNA kits we tested
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.
MyHeritage offers a free tier of service that includes some basic family tree-building and access to excerpts of historical documents. It also includes a report of your genetic makeup across the company's 42 supported ethnicities, the identification of relatives and connections to them where possible.
We 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 -- we 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.
LivingDNA divides its offerings in a different way than others. The $99 Full Ancestry DNA kit provides an overview of your ancestry in 150 geographical regions and information about maternal and paternal haplogroups and access to the company's genetic matching tool. The $120 "wellbeing package" includes reports about your physiological compatibility with vitamins, foods and exercise. And the $179 Wellbeing and Ancestry gives you all of it.
Despite. not selling or sharing data, 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. So, if you're looking to identify and make connections with relatives, there are better choices in the market.
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 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. We suggest starting 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.
DNA tests you probably shouldn't buy
HomeDNA sells testing kits under a number of brands, including DNA Origins, and has a retail presence at Walmart, CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens. 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. But there's no obvious next step or any actionable data that comes with your results.
African Ancestry promises to trace its customers' ancestry back to a specific country and identify their "ethnic group origin." But 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.
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. And African Ancestry promises to destroy your DNA sample after your test results are delivered.
How we chose the best DNA tests
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.
What to consider when shopping for the best DNA tests
There are many options for home DNA tests out there, not all of which are the right choice for you. When shopping, you should keep a few key factors in mind that'll help you find the best DNA test for you.
To start, you need to decide what your goal is when it comes to testing your DNA. Are you trying to connect with family members, explore historical documents or get a snapshot of your health traits? While many of the best DNA tests overlap in what they offer, most shine in particular areas. For example, Ancestry is the best DNA test choice if you want to use your DNA analysis to dive into historical research to build your family tree.
DNA tests aren't what I'd consider cheap, though affordable options exist. It's essential to keep your budget in mind when shopping for a DNA test. Some tests have tiered offerings at a flat rate, while others require subscription fees to access their databases.
Volunteering your health information to companies is a big deal. Before you buy, you should fully understand what happens to your data and results. It's shared with you, but who else has access to it? Some DNA testing companies share your results with law enforcement and pharmaceutical companies.
What do the best DNA tests tell you?
If you're using a home DNA testing service, you're likely looking for one of three things:
Ancestry and family history: The first big draw of a full DNA test is that you'll get a detailed breakdown on ancestry and ethnicity, and the migration patterns of your common ancestors. Spoiler alert: Your ethnic background may be radically different than you think it is. You'll also find out what a haplogroup is.
Relative identification: With your permission, some DNA services will let you connect with relatives you never knew you had -- other folks with matching DNA who have used the service and likewise given their permission to connect to possible relations.
Health and disease info: DNA testing can also indicate which conditions for which you may have a preponderance. It's a controversial feature, to be sure. Knowing that you have a genetic predisposition to a certain form of cancer may make you more vigilant for testing, but it may also lead to increased stress -- worrying about a potential health condition that may never develop, even if you're "genetically susceptible" to it. The possibility of false positives and false negatives abound -- any such information should be discussed with your doctor before you act upon it.
How the best DNA tests work
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:
SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism): Genotyping is done by measuring genetic variation. One of the more common is SNP genotyping, which measures the variations of a single nucleotide polymorphism. The more of these a company measures, the more granular the analysis.
Autosomal DNA testing: An autosomal test that's effective for men and women, and which traces lineage back through both maternal and paternal bloodlines.
Y-DNA: The Y-DNA test can only be administered to men, and traces DNA back through the patrilineal ancestry -- basically from father to grandfather to great grandfather and so on.
mtDNA: The mtDNA is matrilineal and lets you trace your ancestry back through your mother, grandmother, great grandmother and so on.
What are the 3 main types of DNA testing?
There are three types of DNA tests -- each with its own particular strengths, limitations and rationales.
An autosomal DNA test is the best investment for most beginners; it can identify relatives between five and seven generations back, across both maternal and paternal lines.
Only men can effectively use a Y-DNA test, which identifies male relatives on the paternal line reaching back 60,000 years. If you're looking to trace the history of your family's surname, this is the test to use.
Mitochondrial DNA testing, also known as mtDNA testing, can determine genetic relationships on a maternal line from up to 150,000 years ago; both men and women can take this type of test.
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 we spoke to were dubious of the efficacy and value of these tests, however, and recommended avoiding them.
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.
Can I get a DNA test for my dog?
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.
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.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.