23andMe Review: How Accurate Are Their Ancestry & Health DNA Tests?
Updated on March 18, 2024
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23andMe Review: How Accurate Are Their Ancestry & Health DNA Tests?
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I recently tested my DNA using the popular genetics testing company, 23andMe. I wanted to see if I could learn anything interesting about my ancestry or health. 

Genes play an important role in your health, including your risk of developing certain diseases and conditions. They can also influence certain behaviors, such as food preferences.

For example, you may know someone who hates cilantro and insists it tastes like soap. This is due to a gene that can cause you to detect soapy-smelling chemicals in cilantro.1

23andMe can tell if you have this unique genetic variation, along with many others. Some of which have important health implications. 

Quick Facts on 23andMe Genetic Testing

  • Offers two at-home tests for ancestry, health, and traits 
  • Health report meets FDA requirements for being accurate and clinically valid
  • Has a strict privacy policy so your data is never shared without your explicit consent
  • Has over 12 million customers worldwide

At Home DNA Tests by 23andMe

Created in 2006, 23andMe is an at-home genetic testing company that provides personalized reports on your ancestry and health. 

So far, they have tested over 12 million people worldwide. The name comes from the number of chromosome pairs normally found in a human cell.

Using a saliva sample, the company analyzes your DNA to reveal where your ancestors came from. They too can detect certain health traits and genetic risks you may have.

So how does 23andMe reveal your ancestry, health traits, and genetic risks from your DNA?

Let’s start with some basic biology: DNA is the building block of genes. Genes tell your body which proteins to make and how they should function.

Of course, not everyone has the exact same copy of every gene. Due to mutations, people can have similar yet slightly different versions of the same gene.

These genetic variants are called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced “snips”). To date, researchers have recorded over 1 billion SNPs in humans.2

SNPs are responsible for many of our unique characteristics. For example, differences in eye color are the result of SNPs in a group of specific genes. 

There are SNPs that determine how well you handle caffeine, and others that can increase your risk for high cholesterol levels. 

By looking at your combination of SNPs, 23andMe can tell a lot about you. They can give you ancestry results and help you make informed choices about your health.

Anne Wojcicki, one of the company’s co-founders, hopes to empower people by providing them with their genetic information.

How Does 23andMe Work?

From ordering and receiving your test kit, to submitting your sample and getting your results, the whole process is simple and straightforward. 

To begin, you first need to order a test kit from either the 23andMe website or Amazon. 

23andMe offers two at-home DNA tests:

  • 23andMe Health + Ancestry
  • 23andMe Ancestry + Traits

Before providing a saliva sample, you need to create an account online. You’ll be asked to enter the unique 14-digit barcode on the side of your collection tube. 

When you’re ready to give your sample, make sure to avoid eating, drinking, smoking, chewing gum, brushing your teeth, or using mouthwash for at least 30 minutes before.

You can take a sample by spitting into the tube until the liquid reaches the fill line marked on the side. This turns out to be around 2 mL, or about ½ teaspoon, of saliva.

For something so small, it’s a surprisingly large amount. It took me a full 10 minutes to reach the fill line.

Once you’re finished, close the funnel lid and give it a shake. Replace the funnel lid with the tube top, and then place the tube in the bio-specimen bag. 

Place the bag back into the box it came in and reseal it. The box is pre-addressed and prepaid so you just need to drop it off at a USPS mailbox.

After mailing your DNA sample to 23andMe, all you need to do is sit back and wait for your results to be published on your online profile.

What’s Included In My 23andMe Kit?

Your kit will arrive in a small box and includes:

  • One (1) saliva collection tube
  • One (1) funnel lid with buffer solution
  • One (1) tube top
  • A bio-specimen bag
  • A welcome booklet with step-by-step instructions for providing your sample
  • Return shipping materials

How Long Does 23andMe Take?

The website states that results usually take 4-6 weeks from the time the lab receives your sample. I received my results 15 days after I dropped my saliva sample off in the mail.

While you’re waiting, you can see the status of your sample kit on your profile. You’ll receive email updates when your order reaches milestones, such as when:

  • The lab receives your sample
  • The lab begins processing your sample
  • Your test results are complete and ready to view

You’ll also receive an email if the lab is unable to process your results. It can happen if there’s not enough salive samples.

Here’s what to expect from their DNA ancestry tests:

23andMe Health and Ancestry DNA Test Kits

The 23andMe Health + Ancestry package includes your ancestry report, trait status, carrier status, health predisposition, and wellness reports. 

Ancestry Overview

The report gives you a percentage breakdown of your ancestry makeup. Using a genetic database of over 2,000 regions around the world, it can reveal your family history.  

By opting into the DNA Relative Finder, you can also trace any living relatives. These could be anyone from close family to distant cousins, who are also 23andMe members. 

If the program finds DNA matches to a potential relative, it creates a family tree that shows you how you’re likely to be related. 

An interesting feature is the ability to see how much Neanderthal DNA you have. Humans and Neanderthals started to “comingle” around 40,000 years ago, so some people carry it.

According to 23andMe, Neanderthal ancestry can affect your athletic ability, sense of direction, and even the amount of dandruff you may have.

Traits Report

It shows you which physical features or behavioral traits you might have inherited. Your traits reports may include:

  • Hair color, texture, and thickness
  • Earwax type (wet or dry)
  • A strong distaste for cilantro
  • Fear of heights
  • Ability to match musical pitch

Health Predisposition 

The health predisposition reports reveal your genetic risk for 14 different diseases and conditions. For example, 23andMe can detect your risk for:

  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol

Important Note: It’s worth noting that in 2013, the FDA forced 23andMe to stop running tests for genetic health risks. They argued the test hadn’t been validated in clinical trials.  

The company later proved that its testing methods and results were consistent and reliable using scientific, peer-reviewed studies.

In 2017, they received the FDA approval to continue with their health testing. They were the first company to receive this approval, paving the way for other genetic testing companies.3

Wellness Report

The wellness report tells you how your genes may influence 8 different lifestyle factors related to diet, exercise, and sleep. For example, it shows you:

  • How likely you are to be a deep sleeper
  • What type of fast-twitch muscle fibers you have
  • How your weight would likely respond to a diet high in saturated fat. 

Carrier Status

The carrier status report tells you if you carry a copy of a gene that causes a hereditary disease, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. 

23andMe Ancestry and Traits DNA Testing Kit

The 23andMe Ancestry + Traits package includes both ancestry reports and your trait status. It does not include health predispositions, wellness, and carrier status reports. 

How Much Does 23andMe Cost?

23andMe sells their genetic tests for the following prices:

  • 23andMe Health + Ancestry Kit — $199
  • 23andMe Health + Traits Kit — $99

There is also a 23andMe+ Membership for a one-time cost of $169 plus a yearly subscription of $29. The membership includes everything included in the Health + Ancestry kit.

You also get reports that give you in-depth information on your health. Some of which include your heart health, how your body processes certain medications, and more. 

It also provides more advanced ancestry reports as well as access to new updates and features as they are released. 

My 23andMe Reviews — Pros & Cons

Here’s what I learned from my 23andMe test:

Things I Like About 23andMe

1. Provides insightful and sometimes actionable information about your health

Thankfully, I did not have any SNPs that put me at increased risk for disease. However, I did learn some interesting information from my health reports.

I always had a suspicion that my body didn’t process caffeine the same way as most of my friends and family. Depending on the roast, a single cup of coffee is enough to cause anxiety, jitteriness, and insomnia (no matter how early I drink it). 

Interestingly, my health report showed that I had SNPs in the genes responsible for processing caffeine. This genetic variant made me likely to drink less caffeine than average. 

This was based on surveys from other 23andMe customers with the same SNPs. 

For others, their health report may provide the motivation they need to make important lifestyle and diet changes. 

If you find out that your genetics put you at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, it may give you a greater reason to lose weight, exercise, and eat healthier. 

2. They make sure you are prepared to receive potentially negative health reports 

For some people, receiving their 23andMe results may be an upsetting experience. 

You may learn that you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer or celiac disease, among many others.

To help prepare you for any unpleasant results, 23andMe provides you with the necessary information to help you interpret your results correctly. 

This includes reminding the customer that your genes are not your destiny. 

Just because you have a variant associated with an increased risk of a disease, does not mean you will definitely develop that disease. Lifestyle and environment play key roles as well. 

They also allow you to opt out of seeing your results for more serious health reports, such as the SNPs associated with breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA1/BRCA2). 

This is helpful for people who may be too distressed by these results. 

3. The ancestry and health reports are easily accessible and informative

The ancestry, health, and trait reports are easy to understand and provide a wealth of information. The website is easy to navigate and intuitive, so you can find your results quickly. 

23andMe also does a great job of explaining the science behind your results without getting too technical or complex. 

4. They give you full control of your data and allow you to delete it 

One of my biggest concerns was data privacy. Thankfully, 23andMe says they will never share your data with employers, insurance companies, or marketers without your consent. 

Still, I didn’t want my genetic data just sitting on a server in case 23andMe changed their privacy policy in the future or the data was stolen in a hack. 

These worries were eased when I discovered that they allow you to delete your raw data and your account. 

You can even download it before deleting, in case you want to have it undergo DNA analysis with another ancestry service.

Things I Don’t Like About 23andMe

1. There are potential privacy concerns

If you choose to not delete your data and instead keep it stored, there is always the risk that it may be stolen in a breach.

While 23andMe won’t share your data with insurers or third parties without your consent, they do maintain the right to share it with any subsidiary company they own. 

They can also share it with a parent company in the event the company is purchased.

2. Certain health results require genetic counseling to fully understand

For certain health conditions and diseases, it’s absolutely necessary to visit a genetic counselor to properly interpret your results. 

A genetic counselor is a healthcare professional who specializes in genetic conditions. These individuals can help make sense of your results and tell you what actions to take next. 

However, they are often hard to find as they are currently in high demand. They also tend to be mainly located in cities with large hospitals or universities.  

3. Your results can give you a false sense of security

23andMe does not test for all possible SNPs, which means there is still a chance you are at an increased risk for a disease even if your results don’t reflect this. 

For example, 23andMe only tests for three of the SNPs in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. 

However, even the company admits that there are more than 1,000 other SNPs in those genes known to increase cancer risk. And the three they do test are not even the most common.4 

How Accurate is 23andMe?

The ancestry reports are created using algorithms that are fairly accurate. However, they can be subject to change and are not “set in stone,” according to the 23andMe website. 

The Ancestry Composition Report is displayed according to five different confidence thresholds — 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90%.

This means that for a 60% confidence threshold in an ancestry location, there’s still a 40% chance the ancestry maybe something different. 

It can happen if your ancestor lived on the border between two countries, making it hard to tell any genetic difference.

23andMe health reports are incredibly accurate (>99% accuracy). This means there is a small chance (<1%) of false positives and false negatives.

False positives occur when the test says you have a SNP that you don’t actually have.

It’s important to speak with your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns regarding your health reports. 

Overall, I found the entire 23andMe process to be smooth and an excellent introduction to the world of genetic testing. 

While there are some privacy concerns, your DNA results can trace your ancestry timeline and provide practical information about your health.

Updated on March 18, 2024

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Ada Sandoval
Ada Sandoval
Content Contributor
Ada Sandoval is a B.S. in Nursing graduate and a registered nurse with a heart for abandoned animals. She works as a content writer who specializes in medical-related articles and pet health.