23andMe Review

One of the first companies to offer genetic testing via mail, 23andMe was a pioneer in establishing self- administered, DNA-based health reports. It’s still one of their major selling points, especially because all the company’s tests also allows users to connect with living relatives through a sizable opt-in database.

In a nutshell…

23andMe has established a strong presence in the DNA health screening sector by virtue of being both the first company to offer the service and through a detailed battery of results which includes over 75 notations on traits, health conditions and genetic predispositions. The company offers some genealogy services, though not as many as popular rivals like Ancestry — there’s no family tree builder here, but you’ll be able to connect to a user database of more than 10 million people, which makes your chances of locating at least some living family members relatively high. The test also boasts the largest number of ethnic regions available in a DNA testing service at 1500+.

Strengths

  • As one of the first DNA testing services, 23andMe is an established, trusted, and well-reviewed company
  • In addition to viewing your ancestry composition, the Health + Ancestry version of the test offers genetic health screening for 75+ conditions that can be diagnostically valuable
  • The Google-backed site tests samples against more than 1,500 ethnic regions, has a userbase that’s over 10 million strong and allows users to connect with living family members

Limitations

  • There’s no family tree creation tool on 23andMe, so it may be hard to determine exact connections with living relatives if neither of you have compiled a family tree on another site
  • Without the value of the genealogical resources that some comparable services offer, health testing can be costly
  • The company has faced FDA limitations in the past over offering unapproved health tests — they’re currently in full compliance, however

How Does the 23andMe Test Work?

When a company like 23andMe sends your DNA sample to a lab for processing, one or more of these three tests are being performed.

  • Autosomal DNA test, which measures the DNA that you receive in equal parts from your mother and your father, and which they each inherited similarly from their parents. This test is effective at determining ancestry and familial links going back about five generations, at which point genetic dilution makes matches difficult.
  • mtDNA test, which can be performed on anyone, and tracks the mitochondrial DNA that passes down, largely unchanged, from mothers to their children. The consistency of this DNA makes it helpful in tracking a maternal line’s ancestry and migration dating back much further than an autosomal DNA test can.
  • Y-DNA test, which can only be performed on those with XY chromosomes (biological males), and which tracks the fatherline similarly to the way a mtDNA test reveals information on motherlines. People without a Y chromosome who want to track their fatherline may choose to rest their father, brother, paternal uncle, or paternal first cousin in order to access this information.

DNA tests performed by 23andMe include grouped autosomal, mtDNA and Y-DNA testing. However, their mtDNA and Y-DNA tests offer broad maternal and paternal haplogroup results — this means that if you are specifically interested in tracking your motherlines or fatherlines in great detail, then you should opt for a different company (see our recommendations here).

Their basic Ancestry + Traits test traces back about four to five generations, and offers users information on their ancestry composition as well as access to an opt-in database of potential living relatives. The mtDNA test for all users and Y-DNA test for males can provide basic information about maternal and paternal ancestry composition and migration, including identifying haplogroups, which are genetic population groups that share a similar ancient ancestor. The test also notes the presence of markers indicating Neanderthal DNA, and remarks on the likelihood of certain “Neanderthal” traits being present based on a user’s genetics.

Optionally, users may choose to purchase the more expensive Health + Ancestry test, which offers further results. While the sample provided and processing time are the same, this test offers information on over 75 health topics, separated into categories of Health Predisposition, Traits, Wellness, and Carrier Status.

What’s Contained In My Kit?

The 23andMe testing kit includes test completion instructions, a saliva sample collection tube, a specimen bag, and a return postage label that can be affixed to the box the product came in when sending it back to the lab for testing. There’s also a bar code sticker on the specimen collection tube, which you must register on the 23andMe site before submission in order to receive your results.

The contents of a 23andMe Kit (which are described below)
Here’s what you’ll find in your parcel. Photo by 23andMe.

The Testing Experience

Completing a 23andMe test is a simple and straightforward process that requires no technical or medical knowledge. The first step, of course, is to buy your testing kit.

As 23andMe tests are sold both in stores and online, you may choose to pick one up at a participating retailer or purchase it in the comfort of your home. You’ll be able to select from the basic Ancestry + Traits test, which offers ancestry composition information and access to living relatives, or the pricier and more in-depth Health + Ancestry test, which includes those features as well as over 75 health insights.

When your kit arrives or is purchased, it’s a good time to make an account on 23andMe and register your specimen collection tube. Account creation is necessary to access your database of living relatives and create an identifiable profile, and registering your sample is the only way to connect your results to you.

When your account is made and your collection tube is registered, it’s testing time. It’s essential that you not eat, drink, smoke, chew gum, or brush your teeth before you administer the test, as these actions can interfere with processing your sample. If you’re finding it hard to pin down a moment to do this, first thing in the morning is ideal.

To complete the test, fill the specimen tube with saliva, seal it carefully, and place it in the specimen bag. The bag should then be placed in the box the product came in and labeled with the enclosed return shipping label. Place it in any mailbox, and it’ll be on its way to the 23andMe labs for testing.

When and How Will I Receive My Results?

In about 6 – 8 weeks, 23andMe will send an email to the account you registered with letting you know that your results are ready to be viewed. In order to access your results, you’ll need to log into the 23andMe site on a computer.

Your Results Explained

Once you’ve been alerted that your results are ready, the first step is to log onto the 23andMe website to view them. Results for the Ancestry + Traits test are divided into four subgroups for females and five subgroups for males. Those who’ve taken the Health + Ancestry test will also have access to a unique subsection with four subgroups focused on health and wellness.

Ancestry + Traits

Ancestry Composition (Ethnicity Data)

Screenshot from 23andMe membership area showing Ancestry Composition section
A visual representation of Ancestry Composition.

The Ancestry Composition section of your test results displays your genetic ethnicity data on an interactive, color-coded Ancestry map, which allows you to zoom in to access more specific details. Your ethnicity is visualized on the map using a key which sorts your results into broad categories — think “European” and “Sub-Saharan African” — which feature specific regional subsection breakdowns.

When you click on your subsection reports, you’ll be able to access more information on sub-regional ancestry predictions. These can be relatively specific, because at over 1500, 23andMe features more ethnic regions than any other DNA testing service. Additionally, the chromosome painting subsection allows you to view which segments of your chromosomes are inherited from each region, which can be helpful in identifying your familial relationship to your living relatives.

There are limitations to the information you can accurately gain about your ancestors’ ethnicity.Start here to get a better understanding of DNA testing for ethnicity.

DNA Relatives

Screenshot from 23andMe membership area showing DNA Relatives section
Potentially thousands of DNA relatives sorted by strength of relationship.

An optional tool, the DNA Relatives subsection is where you can connect with living relatives who’ve also taken the 23andMe test. Users who opt into the database’s open sharing feature will release their full name, ancestry composition report results, and information on overlapping DNA segments to other participating users. The database’s search tool can be used without opting into open sharing.

For users who choose not to openly share, it will be up to you whether to display your first name, last name, full name, or initials. Your gender will be displayed automatically. You will have the option to add an introductory paragraph to their profile, share you birth year, and reveal location information as broad as your country of origin. You may also note your grandparents’ birthplaces, check a box which indicates Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, and publish a list of family surnames you’re connected to. If you’ve made a family tree on Ancestry or another site, there’s also a space to link to your tree.

You’ll have the option to search the database for your DNA relatives, allowing you to connect with them and share ancestry results. If your close family members have taken 23andMe tests, you’ll be able to share and compare your genetic traits and ancestries, as all DNA does vary slightly.

Maternal Haplogroup

This subsection offers a broad breakdown of your maternal ancestry, including your maternal haplogroup, which is a genetic population group linked to one maternal ancestor. This can offer information on the migration path of your family line which can be interesting to know, but doesn’t offer results that are as in-depth as a separate, full mtDNA test.

Paternal Haplogroup

Because Y-DNA testing can only be performed on users with Y chromosomes, this subsection will only be available to biological males. Much like the maternal haplogroup section, it links paternal ancestry to a common ancient ancestor and the user to a broader genetic population group. Likewise, the results offered are also not as comprehensive as those offered by full Y-DNA tests, but can offer insight on fatherline ancestry and migration.

Neanderthal DNA

Many people are curious about their genetic link to primitive humans. This breakdown correlates Neanderthal variants found in your test results to your predisposition to certain traits; things like your straight hair, height, the likelihood you’ll sneeze after eating dark chocolate, and other qualities are all noted by the number of related variants seen in your DNA sample. For a more in-depth peek at the science behind these results, you can navigate to the Scientific Details tab in order to reveal the precise genetic markers associated with each trait.

Health + Traits

If you’ve purchased the more advanced Health + Ancestry test, your results will include a unique landing page divided into four sections. As the company reinforces, it’s important to understand that these test results are not a substitution for a medical assessment or diagnosis.

Multiple health and wellbeing reports offered.

Carrier Status

Helpful for those who are considering having children, this section reveals variants present in your sample as related to 43 inheritable genetic conditions. It reveals information about the symptoms, progression, and most affected ethnicities of the illnesses detailed.

Health Predisposition

For those curious about the likelihood of their own potential health issues, this section details your predisposition to more than 10 conditions. These include Type 2 Diabetes, selected variants of BRCA1/BRCA2, Celiac Disease, and late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, among others. Like the carrier status results, it offers details about each health issue as well as intended uses for the test, its limitations, ethnicities at risk, and lifestyle factors that can influence the issue.

Traits

An interesting way to see how your genetics influence myriad aspects of your physical and mental self, the traits section reveals the likelihood of things like flat feet, motion sickness, and even your favorite ice cream flavor. The results aren’t hard and fast, so don’t be surprised if you love cilantro regardless of what the test says — the traits report speaks to the experience of the larger percentage of people with similar genetics to you, not you as an individual.

Mainly by way of fun, various physical traits and the probability you will have them.
Wellness

Focusing on how your genetics effect personal wellness factors, this report can help you understand how susceptible you are to things like weight gain and loss, lactose intolerance, and the effects of caffeine consumption, among others. The reports compare your DNA sample against variants associated with the wellness factor at hand, giving you a breakdown of your predisposition. It includes information about healthy habits for your genetic profile as they relate to each wellness factor, as well as details about what is average for someone of your age and ethnic composition.

Is the 23andMe Test Accurate?

As one of the first DNA testing services to enter the market, 23andMe has striven to provide results that are accurate and specific. The test measures regional ancestry with 99% accuracy, but is open about the fact that migration can influence autosomal DNA test results in ways the test can’t detect.

Will 23andMe Keep My Information Private?

If you’re concerned about privacy, you’ll be happy to know that 23andMe only ties your legal name to your sample if you opt into the open sharing database. If you participate in open sharing, living relatives in the database will be able to view your full name, ancestry composition report, and shared genetic segments. If you opt out, you’ll get to decide how much information is shared. 23andMe does not share or sell test results.

How Does 23andMe Compare to the Competition?

23andMe vs. Family Tree DNA

When it comes to health results, there’s no contest — 23andMe is the clear winner, as Family Tree is still working on rolling out genetic health services. Family Tree DNA offers non-bundled mtDNA and Y-DNA that 23andMe doesn’t offer, which offer far more detailed motherline and fatherline results; however, they aren’t cheap. Likewise, Family Tree DNA has a large genealogy community and online resources, both of which 23andMe lacks.

Learn more with our complete review of Family Tree DNA.

23andMe vs. Living DNA

When it comes to regional specificity, Living DNA and 23andMe are head-to-head competitors with regards to the UK. Living DNA’s results are far broader elsewhere, which means unless you’re from the British Isles, you’ll likely get a better picture of your ethnic composition with 23andMe. Living DNA offers broad maternal and paternal haplogroup testing that’s similar to what 23andMe includes, but a lack of a user database means the site does little to facilitate your quest to find living relatives.

23andMe vs. My Heritage

Creating a family tree and accessing a rich online genealogy community are two of the benefits My Heritage offers users, and they’re areas where 23andMe is notably lacking. After an initial free trial, a subscription fee is required to maintain a tree that’s larger than 250 people; it’s not cheap, with subscriptions staring at $189 a year.

My Heritage has recently started offering a Health and Ancestry test that’s similar to 23andMe’s in both results and price point, but with only 42 ethnic regions and a significantly smaller database, the results are less detailed and finding living relatives is harder.

Learn more with our full review of My Heritage.

23andMe vs. AncestryDNA

As the two most popular tests on the market, 23andMe and AncestryDNA both have standout features. 23andMe boasts a greater variety of ethnic regions, which makes ancestry composition results specific and accurate, while AncestryDNA’s user database is significantly larger, making it easier to match with living relatives. Ancestry has recently rolled out a health and wellness add-on available after test completion, but it’s not yet included as an upgrade that can be bundled into the kit’s initial cost. Unlike 23andMe, no maternal and paternal haplogroup results are available. AncestryDNA features a family tree tool which can be used for free, but accessing the site’s huge records database and seeing your match’s tree requires a subscription.

Here is our in-depth review of AncestryDNA to help you make your choice.

Read next:  Our in-depth comparison between 23andMe and AncestryDNA.

23andMe: Frequently Asked Questions

Will I Be Able To Locate Living Family Members?

Yes, 23andMe allows those who have taken the test to access a database that matches them with people to whom they’re genetically connected. That said, the database is opt-in, so your relatives don’t have to be part of the public search if they don’t want to. Those who aren’t public can still use the search feature, though, so your best chance to find relatives who aren’t publicly sharing is to opt into open sharing yourself.

While there is a family tree tool, it is relatively rudimentary and not yet as sophisticated as those offered by competitors. Nevertheless, it can make it easier to visualize your exact relationship with a genetic match.

23andMe’s family tree tool: less sophisticated than others, but improving all the time.

Does the Test Measure Neanderthal DNA?

If you’re curious about your primitive roots, you’re not alone, and 23andMe’s test does offer a bit of insight. You’ll find a subsection in your results which reviews the Neanderthal variants present in your DNA sample in terms of the likelihood that they’ve influenced certain genetic traits and behaviors. You’ll also be able to review the precise genetic markets associated with these traits.

Does the Test Measure Native American Ancestry?

While the 23andMe test can indicate North or South American regional ethnicity and the existence of North American ancestors, it is impossible for the test to determine actual native ancestry or a tribe or tribes of origin. Additionally, it’s important to note that the test cannot be used as proof of Native American ancestry, which requires additional documentation.

Start here to get a better understanding of testing for Native American ancestry.

Is It Possible to Access My Health or Medical Information With the 23andMe Test?

23andMe currently offers two tests — Ancestry + Traits and Health + Ancestry.
Users who have purchased the Health + Ancestry test will have access to a separate landing page in their test results with sections on carrier status, health predisposition, wellness, and traits to explore. Compared to the base test’s standard price point of $99, the Health + Ancestry test costs $199, but sales can help to reduce the cost of the test significantly.

Will My Results Be Clearer If Other Family Members Also Take the 23andMe Test?

When it comes to autosomal DNA tests, DNA variance means that testing more family members means there’s a greater chance of matching up with living relatives. If you’re interested in clarifying your maternal and paternal ethnicity beyond the broad haplogroup results offered by your own test, testing your parents can be informative.

Additionally, women who haven’t received paternal haplogroup information in their test results can test their father, brother, paternal uncle, or paternal cousin and connect with them on the site in order to automatically add paternal haplogroup information to their genetic profile.

Can I Export My Raw Data For Use on Other Sites?

Yes, 23andMe allows users to export their raw data in the form of a zip file. This allows you to upload your DNA information into other free and monetized databases which can offer further insight into your background and more opportunities to connect with living relatives.

How Much Does the Test Cost?

Currently, the prices for 23andMe testing kits are as follows:

Ancestry + Traits: $99
Health + Ancestry: $199

Seasonal sales can drastically reduce the prices of these kits, particularly Health + Ancestry, which can sometimes be found for only $99. Additionally, some sites seem to offer collection kits only at what seems like significantly lower costs, but this can be misleading. Users must still pay for their DNA test to be performed when registering in order for their specimen to be assessed.

Users who purchase the Ancestry + Traits kit initially will have the option to add health and wellness reports to their results later at a cost of $125, which is $25 more than buying the report as a bundle during the initial purchase. Those who choose to buy the kit online rather than in store should expect a shipping cost of 9.99 for standard post and 36.95 for expedited, but since it’s available at many major retailers, expedited shipping shouldn’t be required.

Should I Give Kits as Gifts?

There’s a few reasons why giving 23andMe tests as gifts is a great idea.

First, learning about ancestry and finding living relatives is something that’s of interest to a great number of people. For those without access to family records, it’s a way for them to learn more about roots they wouldn’t have been able to explore otherwise.

Second, if you’ve already tested yourself, gifting tests to family members will benefit you both. It will allow everyone involved to compile a more accurate list of living relatives, and can help to reveal new information about your background.

Third, the tests tend to see steep price reductions a few times a year, and they don’t expire. That means it’s easy to stock up when they’re less pricey, and gift them when occasions arise.

The Bottom Line

23andMe offers regional specificity and detailed health results that set it apart from its competitors. The broad maternal and paternal haplogroup testing bundled with their autosomal DNA test offers information on motherlines and fatherlines that’s typically only accessible with separate, expensive tests.

A database of two million users allows access to living relatives and facilitates side by side comparison of genetic makeup, and detailed user profiles make it easy to connect with those with shared surnames and view off-site family tree records. The simple, interactive results interface and in-store accessibility of this test help it to remain one of the most popular testing kits on the market.

Hannah H.

Hannah H.

Hannah is both a parent and a freelance journalist and author. You go, girl! She is an impeccable wordsmith and her warm and witty outlook on life makes her pieces a joy to read.

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