23andMe DNA Test Review
Updated on April 1st, 2019
When we think of direct-to-customer DNA tests, 23andMe is the first company that comes to mind for many people. 23andMe has been around since 2007 and has helped revolutionize at-home DNA testing. It has also expanded the use of genealogy tools.
How good is the 23andMe DNA test? Is it worth the cost? Are better DNA tests available? We tried the 23andMe Health + Ancestry DNA kit to find answers to these questions.
23andMe Ancestry Reporting
23andMe’s flagship product is its ancestry DNA testing kit. The test results are broken down into 35+ reports that provide information on:
- Ancestry composition
- Neanderthal heritage
- Maternal haplogroups
- Paternal haplogroups
- Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
As far as where your ancestors were from, the 23andMe DNA testing is very granular. Over 1,000 regions can be identified through their genetic testing.
The results will show origins as small as 0.1% and trace ancestry. Trace ancestry is less than 1% for a region.
The reports don’t just show where ancestors were from. 23andMe also provides recent ancestor locations and an ancestry timeline that breaks down how many generations back there was an ancestor from a certain population.
Chromosome painting is another unique feature. It’s a color coding system that shows different ancestry composition on the 22 chromosomes.
23andMe is continuing to improve its ancestry reporting every day as more DNA samples are processed. You may notice that your ancestry composition has a percentage for broadly Southern European, broadly Eastern Asian, etc.
As 23andMe gathers more data, ancestry composition is updated and the broad categories typically give way to more exact results. When the ancestry composition is updated, 23andMe sends an email and has an alert at the top of the ancestry summary page.
23andMe DNA Test: Pricing and Value
The 23andMe Ancestry kit price is pretty much in line with other DNA testing kits. It provides 35+ ancestry reports for $99.
There’s also the Health + Ancestry kit that provides 90+ additional reports and costs $199. Both kits come with free shipping.
23andMe DNA Kit Discounts
Throughout the year, 23andMe offers discounts on their DNA kits, most often around holidays. For example, around St. Patrick’s Day the company will run a promotion prompting people to see if they’re part Irish.
Black Friday is another opportunity to get as much as 50% off on 23andMe DNA kits. The discounts are sometimes offered on a single kit, two kits or the Health + Ancestry kit only.
Upgrading to the 23andMe Health + Ancestry Kit
Knowing your ancestry is an eye-opening and entertaining experience, but the information isn’t actionable. It’s all about your past and the ancestors that came before you.
23andMe has taken DNA testing a step further by offering an additional service that tests DNA for wellness factors that give you insight into your genetic health.
23andMe was approved by the FDA in 2015 to market a carrier status report that told people if they were at an increased risk of getting Bloom syndrome. It was the first time the FDA granted this type of approval and set the stage for 23andMe’s health reporting.
Now, just a few years later, 23andMe’s Health + Ancestry kit provides:
- 40+ carrier status reports
- 25+ physical and behavioral traits reports
- 10+ health genetic predispositions reports
- 5+ wellness reports
The reports include genetic risk for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of cancer. You’ll also learn about the risk of passing genetic mutations on to children.
Before seeing the results there’s a page with a disclaimer explaining that the results aren’t a diagnosis.
You can then see the results, which very clearly state whether you do or don’t have a genetic variant for a health disposition or are a carrier. The results will also tell you if you have one or two genetic variants if a condition is tested for more than one and whether you’re at an increased risk.
People with an increased risk for breast cancer should highly consider upgrading to the Health + Ancestry kit. In 2018 23andMe was approved to offer BRCA mutation testing.
The test looks for variants in both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Variants in these genes increase a person’s risk of getting certain types of breast cancer.
All together the Health + Ancestry kit provides more than 125 genetic reports. Regardless of the result, 23andMe provides an excellent breakdown of each condition including the symptoms, other risk factors and how it’s treated.
In our minds, the extensive health reporting is worth the additional $100. The results can give you priceless peace of mind and also help you better plan future healthcare if you are at an increased risk for certain diseases.
23andMe’s Test Ordering Experience
Ordering the 23andMe DNA test was very simple for us. We ordered a Health + Ancestry kit through the 23andMe website. The experience was similar to making any online purchase:
- Select the kit
- Input basic personal information, including an address for shipping
- Choose whether to use standard or express delivery
- Enter payment information
If you purchase a kit directly from 23andMe you can pay by credit card, PayPal or Apple Pay. The entire process only takes a few minutes.
Refunds are possible if they are requested within 30 days of ordering and the saliva sample has not been shipped to the 23andMe laboratory.
Getting the 23andMe DNA Test Done: Step by Step
There are different types of genetic testing that require certain DNA collection processes. In the past, at-home genetic tests used the buccal swab method.
The swab was rubbed on the inside of the cheek to collect a DNA sample. Today, 23andMe uses a saliva sample for genetic testing. To collect and submit the DNA sample:
Step 1. Order your kit.
Step 2. Once the kit arrives, read the directions and make sure the saliva collection vial is intact. If the liquid in the compartment above the saliva tube is leaking or there’s an opening the sample could be compromised. You’ll need to contact customer service and have them send another kit if any of the components are damaged.
Step 3. Fill the test tube up to the indicated mark with saliva.
Step 4. Close the top and allow the preservative liquid to enter the tube.
Step 5. Register your saliva collection tube online. You do this with the barcode that is included in the kit. Write down the number or take a photo of it with your phone for your own records.
Step 6. Use the prepaid package to mail your saliva sample to the 23andMe laboratories.
Step 7. Wait for an email from 23andMe letting you know that the DNA test results are in.
Step 8. Log on to your 23andMe account to read the test results.
Getting Your 23andMe DNA Test Results
Waiting for the 23andMe DNA results may be the hardest part. It can take up to five weeks to get the results back. All the results are online and accessible through a 23andMe website account.
Interpreting Your Results
23andMe tests offer a wealth of information that some people may find overwhelming. Fortunately, the test results are easy to understand, and many test results have a visual component for even easier interpretation.
23andMe also has an ancestry tutorial that teaches users how to interpret the results.
As far as the health reporting goes, 23andMe is very clear that it only offers screening tests that look for specific genetic mutations, not a diagnosis. Even if a person tests negative for a health predisposition they can still get the disease. Testing negative simply means you aren’t at an increased risk.
As an added bonus, 23andMe has teamed up with a company called Lark to offer wellness coaching. The coaching is based on results from 23andMe health testing.
If you do test positive on a health predisposition or carrier status it’s highly advisable that you speak with a genetic counselor. The counselor can explain how the genetic mutation increases your risk, if further testing should be done, whether other family members should be tested and how to monitor your health moving forward.
Finding Your Relatives on 23andMe
If you’ve ever used Ancestry.com to trace your roots you know it can be a time-consuming endeavor. Although 23andMe DNA testing is primarily done so we can better understand ourselves and our unique genetic makeup, it’s also possible to connect with others that share a piece of that genetic background.
23andMe’s family finder tool is called the DNA Relative Finder. It shows you others that have used 23andMe genetic testing and share your DNA. Sharing DNA means at some point you shared an ancestor.
You can receive a list of DNA relatives or view them on a map to see where they live. You’ll be able to see their 23andMe profile name, location and predicted family status (i.e. second cousin, third cousin, etc.).
You can select a DNA relative to view their ancestry profile and compare results. You can even see the individual DNA segments that are shared. If you want to make an actual connection, you can message them through the 23andMe system.
In order to use the tool, you must opt to participate. By opting in you agree to share a name or initials and other profile information with others that are identified as a DNA relative.
As a teaser 23andMe tells you how many DNA relatives have been found before you sign up. You can learn more about your familial makeup but the tradeoff is less privacy. 23andMe does allow you to opt out at any time if you want to.
23andMe and Privacy
As soon as people discovered that 23andMe was banking DNA samples, privacy concerns were raised. In general, many people have had misgivings about DNA testing because the information is sensitive.
23andMe is fairly transparent about the use of its DNA samples and seems to take privacy very seriously. For starters, they must comply with the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).
The act protects against DNA test findings being shared with employers or insurance companies. 23andMe states that it also doesn’t share any information with law enforcement unless they are served with a court order or subpoena to do so.
Users are also given assurance that their privacy is protected by how 23andMe associates DNA samples. Your name isn’t connected to your sample. Instead, you are given a number to register your sample.
If you’re wondering “who does 23andMe share my information with,” you’re not alone. It’s a question we also had. 23andMe expressly states it will never share your personal information with third parties without your consent.
BUT – aggregate information is shared with other parties for business development purposes. What is aggregate information? It’s information that’s been stripped of your personal details and lumped together with other people’s information.
So your information is being shared, but no one knows it’s yours.
It should be noted that saliva samples are kept in the 23andMe labs only if a customer provides a sample storage consent document. 23andMe doesn’t want a saliva sample destroyed because it’s possible to use it in the future for other purposes as genetic technology advances.
However, a customer must consent to have information used for research.
23andMe also takes security measures to protect data from being accessed without approval. The company says that it employs physical, hardware and software measures to protect samples and their computers where information is stored.
23andMe’s Customer Service: Getting Help
23andMe’s customer service is top notch. There’s an extensive FAQ section that’s broken down into categories. It’s a quick and easy way to find answers to common questions.
If you still need answers and can’t find them online you can call or email the customer service department. Customer service is available by phone seven days a week.
The customer service team is very responsive and swift. Emails are typically handled within 24 hours, and you won’t sit on hold if you call. If a replacement kit is needed they’ll get one mailed out within a day.
23andMe DNA Test: Pros and Cons
As with any genetic test, there are pros and cons to the 23andMe at-home genetic test.
- You’ll get definitive information on genetic mutations with the Health + kit
- Provides in-depth ancestry information
- Can connect you with family members you didn’t know you had – if you don’t mind sharing profile information
- Your reports will be expanded as 23andMe improves its DNA testing technology and database
- FDA-approved tests
- Emphasis on privacy and allowing users to opt out of data collection and sharing
- Ancestry isn’t all inclusive for familial background because people express DNA differently. Siblings can have results that are up to 50% different.
- A positive carrier status can cause unnecessary stress. Even if you test positive that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get a disease or pass a mutation to a child.
- Carrier status tests cannot determine if you have two copies of a gene variant.
- A negative carrier status doesn’t mean you’re immune to a disease and can give a false sense of security.
Pro and Con:
There’s one aspect to 23andMe’s service that is both a pro and a con. The company is continuously processing DNA samples, which helps them improve the accuracy of their results. But this also means your ancestry results can change.
Where to Buy a 23andMe Kit
You can get 23andMe kits directly from the company on its website. This is where you’ll find the promotional deals.
Another benefit of ordering directly is you know you’re getting a legitimate, new kit.
Amazon is another retailer that sells 23andMe DNA kits online. You may be able to find exclusive deals during Amazon Prime Day and Cyber Monday.
Alternatives to the 23andMe DNA Test
23andMe is one of the best known and most extensive direct-to-customer DNA testing kits, but there are many others offered to consumers these days.
Some offer ancestry information while others specifically test for one gene mutation.
Some of the best ancestry DNA tests outside of 23andMe include:
AncestryDNA — Offering an ancestry DNA test was a sensible service for Ancestry.com, the website that made genealogy research mainstream. AncestryDNA will also match users with relatives from their 5 million DNA profiles.
Living DNA — This kit is straightforward and finds ancestry that goes back thousands of years.
MyHeritage — MyHeritage offers ancestry DNA testing on a budget but little in the way of interpreting results.
National Geographic Genographic Project — National Geographic was one of the first companies to offer genetic ancestry testing. It shows the migration path of ancestors.
It’s worth noting that 23andMe is the only at-home DNA test that has been shown to meet FDA clinical standards. While other tests use similar testing protocols and are believed to be accurate, their scientific methods haven’t received the FDA stamp of approval.
Overall Experience With 23andMe
The overall experience was a positive one for us. We got a wealth of information and learned a lot more about how our genetic makeup will influence our health now and in the future.
The reports were easy to decipher, and 23andMe does a good job of delivering information in small chunks so you can keep digging deeper if you want. 23andMe also does a good job of explaining very scientific concepts in a way that’s easy for anyone to understand.
The visual elements of the reports are a nice touch that help explain the ancestry results.
We really appreciate that 23andMe will continue to update our reports for free. DNA testing is still in its infancy so there could be a lot more information on the horizon. For example, 23andMe recently added a Type 2 Diabetes report that’s based on their own internal research.
The ancestry information is also improving. Even over a short period of time, our report was updated and the broad categories were narrowed.