It’s 2023, and you can find out all about your genetics without ever having to go to a doctor’s office. It’s never been more affordable and easier to try one of the multiple different DNA tests available on the market. 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 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, reputation and price. 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.
Best DNA tests
Other DNA testing options
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MyHeritage offers a free tier of service that includes some basic family tree-building and access to excerpts of historical documents.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.
For experts only: Whole genome sequencing
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.
DNA tests we’d avoid
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.
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 does a DNA test 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 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 I spoke to were dubious of the efficacy and value of these tests, however, and recommended avoiding them.
DNA testing FAQs
More DNA advice
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.