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Best DNA testing kits 2020: Unravel your ancestry

Best DNA testing kits 2020: Unravel your ancestry
(Image credit: ShutterStock)

The best DNA testing kits can open up a doorway into your past, warn you against potential illnesses that you might be susceptible to, or just let you know where your ancestors might have come from. There are even services out there for dogs, so you can learn about and protect man’s best friend. Whatever your needs, there’s a service out there that specializes in helping you out.

Some DNA testing sites specialize in mapping out your family tree and discovering who your distant relatives are, with some of these even offering services to help you track down and contact your distant living relatives if you want to meet them face to face.

There are also ancestry companies out there that can help you out with your health and fitness by testing to see if you’re susceptible to certain diseases or recommending exercise regimes based on your results. But which is the best DNA testing kit solution for you? Plenty of the big names out there have adverts on TV and the internet, but just because you’ve heard of them, that doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for you.

To help you decide, we have reviewed the best DNA testing kit sites and services out there, ranking them on the various types of DNA test that they offer and the diversity of their database by race and country of origin. We also looked at the companies that offered potential health benefits and extra services like tracking down lost relatives to find out which service is best for each specific task. If you’re particularly interested in your genealogy, you should check out our best genealogy websites to see a more in-depth breakdown.

1. 23andMe: Best overall

23andMe

(Image credit: 23andMe)

23andMe

In-depth reports cover over 1,500 regions

Available geographic regions: >1,500 | Database size: >5 million | Sample type: Saliva | Genetic relative connections: Yes | Online family trees: Yes

Impressive reports
Detailed family connections 
Expensive
Limited genealogy resources 

23andMe is the best DNA testing service that provides the most details about your ancestry. Geographical results show not only the region of the world and the countries your ancestors are from, but in many places the the country and specific cities, too. The migratory map includes a timeline of when your forefathers lived in an area and when they moved to another country. You also get a percentage breakdown of how much of your DNA has been inherited by certain ethnic groups. In all, you can tap into over 50 different, detailed reports, including health analyses that hone in on diseases you’re prone to and traits that have been passed down.

Because of how many people use 23andMe, its database is really big. This means you are likely to connect with a long list of relatives if you choose to use the family connection service. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to search for specific ancestors, create family trees or share genealogy information very easily with this service. But the details you get with this service still make it the best for DNA testing.

2. MyHeritage: Best value

MyHeritage

(Image credit: MyHeritage)

MyHeritage

Upload raw data for a value DNA analysis

Available geographic regions: 42 | Database size: >1.75 million | Sample type: Cheek swab | Genetic relative connections: Yes | Online family trees: Yes

Costs less than other tests
Free upload of raw data
Gaps in geological coverage
Fewer family match results

MyHeritage collects its DNA samples with two swabs rather than a full saliva sample, but still produces some impressive results. It covers over 40 regions, which means you won’t get as much detail as other services, but still enough to get a good idea of your past. There are gaps in some regions, especially in Asia where some major countries aren’t even listed, where other DNA companies cover.

The best part of MyHeritage is its free raw DNA upload. If you’ve had a DNA test done with another company that gives you the raw data, you can upload this file to the MyHeritage database. From here, MyHeritage will both store your file and give you some insights from its lab. You can use your findings to connect with family members, but because its database isn’t as big, there won’t be as many matches compared to other companies.

3. Ancestry DNA: Best for Genealogy

Ancestry

(Image credit: Ancestry)

Ancestry DNA

Largest DNA database result in more family connections

Available geographic regions: >500 | Database size: >15 million | Sample type: Saliva | Genetic relative connections: Yes | Online family trees: Yes

Largest DNA database
Excellent genealogy tools
Varied results
Cannot upload raw data 

Ancestry DNA has the largest database of any testing company we reviewed with over 15 million samples. Because of this information, the information you can tap into is impressive. You can see where you ancestors lived, traits you’ve inherited from them and people you are related to based on your DNA results, both living and deceased. With family connection tools you can reach out to living relatives or link your results to Ancestry.com to create, connect or add to family trees for an impressive and comprehensive genealogy.

Because your results are so dependent on Ancestry’s database, there are regions that don’t have as much detail as others. We noticed that some tests results were more broad than others. We also experienced a lot of fluctuation in wait times. While some testers received their results within two weeks of sending in their results, others, who sent in their DNA tests on the same day, ended up waiting as long as 10 weeks.

4. Living DNA: Best for Health Analysis  

Living DNA

(Image credit: Living DNA)

Living DNA

Health analysis for a better, healthier lifestyle

Available geographic regions: 80 | Database size: >200,000 | Sample type: Cheek swab | Genetic relative connections: Yes | Online family trees: Yes

Detailed health analysis
Several subregions for British and Irish ancestry
Not a good choice for Asian or African ancestry
Long wait times for health analysis 

Living DNA is our top pick for DNA health analysis. This testing company not only gives you a decent amount of detail about your ancestry, but also uses your genetic make-up to give you health pointers for a better, healthier lifestyle. The final reports include food and vitamins your body metabolizes easily and those to avoid. It also tells you the exercises that work well for your body type. Though your health analysis doesn’t diagnose diseases you may have, the benefits of the information that is included make Living DNA worth the cost,

On the ancestry side of the tests, Living DNA looks at mitochondrial and Y-DNA as well as autosomal DNA, it shows you not only the countries your ancestors are from, but the migration paths they took and the possible years in which they moved from one region to another. Living DNA has over 80 regions and subregions that it looks at. For those of European, especially British and Irish, descent, it will include the counties, and sometimes cities, where your forefathers lived. Other regions of the world do have good ancestral information, but we found it wasn’t as detailed for Asian and African regions compared to the European and British ones.

5. FamilyTree DNA: Best for paternity 

FamilyTreeDNA

(Image credit: FamilyTreeDNA)

FamilyTree DNA

Discover DNA from a single parent line

Available geographic regions: 24 | Database size: >990,000 | Sample type: Cheek swab | Genetic relative connections: Yes | Online family trees: Yes

Maternal or paternal line tests
Some health analysis
Awkward sample collection
Sample not fully secured

FamilyTree DNA has a traditional DNA kit that shows your full ancestral line, but you can also choose to just have a report from one parent rather than both. This lets you see exactly which side of the family certain ancestral traits you’ve inherited, or regions you are from. If you don’t want to purchase a DNA kit from FamilyTree, you can take another test then upload the raw data to this database and get results from this service. All reports from FamilyTree DNA give enough information to see where your ancestors came from, but aren’t as detailed as other companies.

Your DNA sample is gathered with a check swab, but the registration process is very lengthy. There is a lot of information to enter online, and there is even more to add to the form that comes with the DNA kit that must be returned to FamilyTree along with your sample. Once FamilyTree has your sample, it doesn’t sell your information to third parties, however it does allow the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to have limited access to its database.

What to look for when choosing a DNA kit

Types of DNA: All of the DNA tests we took and reviewed look at the autosomal DNA of your sample. This part of your DNA shows you where you ancestors are from and their migratory patterns from one country or region to another. DNA testing facilities breakdown your autosomal DNA to show you what percentage of ethnicity you are and which haplogroups you belong to, which helps you connect to other living relatives. While test results can be very specific, autosomal DNA doesn’t distinguish between your mother and your father’s side of the family.

Some kits specifically look at either the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is your mother’s side, or the Y-DNA, which is your father’s side. These tests are used for determining paternity, though also are useful when breaking down which traits, ethnicity, geographical regions and migration patterns of one side of you family.

Collection Methods: Consumer DNA test sample are collected through either a saliva sample or a cheek swab. In both cases you are asked not to eat, drink, smoke or chew gum up to one hour before taking the test to ensure a clean sample. Saliva sample require you to spit into a test tube. This takes some time to gather and can get frustrating since you need to ensure your sample isn’t mainly bubbles reaching the fill line.

For cheek swabs, DNA kits range from one to four swabs. These are rubbed against the inside of your check while rotating the swab for a minimum of 30 seconds. Our testers were split between those who preferred the saliva collection and those that preferred the cheek swab. We did notice that testing facilities that required a large saliva sample often gave us more and deeper detailed results compared to those who only needed a cheek swab.

Genealogy Tools: After you receive your results, DNA testing services differ with what you can do with the data. Many have a way for you to connect with other family members, both close and distant, who have also taken a DNA test from the same company. We found that companies with larger databases tend to have more family connections. Also, 23andMe tended to more closely identify family members. For example, other testing services lists several family members as first or second cousins while 23andMe correctly identified them as fathers and uncles.

Ancestry links its DNA results to its family search database, which helps link you to deceased family members. You can use these results to create pedigree charts or connect with living relatives’ family trees. Some other companies, like Living DNA, have some of these same tools available, but they're not nearly as refined. Plus, its smaller database means fewer family connections.

How accurate are DNA tests results?

Because each testing facility uses different methods of collection, testing and algorithms, you will see differences in the final results. However, each test did gave use accurate, base results. The difference is in the details. Larger companies, like 23andMe and Living DNA, tend to have larger databases and look at more regions and subregions so you’ll get more detailed reports. For example, smaller testing facilities may report ancestral finding in Britain or North Asia. But larger companies break it down further to show percentage of DNA from each region along with countries, counties and in some instances cities where your ancestors lived.

Most of the services we tested use genotyping to read your DNA. Genotyping looks for specific markers in your genetic code. For something like ancestry testing, genotyping is effective because it identifies known variants in your DNA. Scientifically speaking, genotyping’s weakness is that it can only recognize previously identified markers. This is one reason DNA tests’ accuracy relies so heavily on the DNA database size; there must be enough information available and identified genetic variants in the database to recognize new customers’ markers.

DNA sequencing gives more information overall and has more uses in medical testing than genotyping. In the future, more DNA kits may move from genotyping to DNA sequencing as the technology gets cheaper and faster, but for now both are effective ways to look into your geographic ancestry.

How much does a DNA kit cost?

Most basic DNA kits cost around $100 to look at ancestral and geographical results. For double this, you can get a kit that includes a heath analysis. While there are cheaper tests available, it's better to save your pennies and get the best kit available to you then take advantage of free raw data uploads offered by other companies, like the one from MyHeritage. The top services, 23andMe and AncestryDNA, have deals throughout the year that drop the price by 40 and even 50 percent, so it is very possible to get a top notch kit for a fraction of the cost. 

Are DNA testing kits safe?

It is always safe, easy and unintrusive to provide your sample. The kits come with swabs and collection tubes that are sterile and sealed to keep from becoming contaminated before you are able to give your sample. Once you send in your sample, how secure your information remains varies by company.

Every company we tested had us grant or deny permission to share our information with other facilities, or possible family connections during the registration process. Some permissions are required for family connection tools. However, you can also change your security settings at any time before, during and after testing. DNA testing facilities take the privacy of your DNA very seriously, so they take extra measures to keep it secure. 

There are mixed reactions to the use of ancestry DNA databases in criminal cases. On one hand, the rise of readily-available DNA information for millions of people has led to the arrests of several suspects related to long-cold cases, including the arrest of the Golden State Killer. On the other hand, law enforcement accessing private databases of genetic information from consumers raises several questions regarding privacy and ethical issues.

Of course, most DNA used by law enforcement in the U.S. does not come from direct-to-consumer DNA tests. The federal government and many states collect DNA samples from suspects of violent crimes after arrest or due to probable cause. These samples are added to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which is a national database for forensic information.

FamilyTree DNA does grant law enforcement officers some limited access to its DNA databases. It has helped the FBI crack cold cases because of this partnership. While more in-depth investigations require a subpoena to look at any facility’s database, FamilyTree has been known to allow more access than other facilities without these.

Important note on National Geographic Geno 2.0 DNA Ancestry kits

For 14 years, National Geographic has partnered with universities and scientists from around the world to collect and analyse DNA samples. This collaboration projects aimed to learn more about human migration patterns throughout time. Top Ten Reviews has tested and reports our findings of this kits in the pasts, which ranked highly. However, because the project is coming to an end, Geno 2.0 DNA Ancestry kits are no longer available for purchase.

National Geographic will still accept and process DNA kits that haven’t yet been sent in until Dec 31, 2019. After this date, kits will no longer be accepted. Also, its online database will remain open until June 30, 2020. National Geographic recommends downloading a hard copy of your DNA test results for you personal records. You can learn more from the National Geographic’s Genographic Project website.

Other types of DNA tests 

Though we exclusively reviewed ancestry tests, they are by no means the only at-home DNA kits available. In fact, the direct-to-consumer market is flush with odd and interesting products that give you gene-based insights into everything from wine preferences to potential romantic partners.  

Pet DNA tests 

Companies like Embark, Wisdom Panel and many others offer genetic health risk screenings, trait analyses and breed percentage information for dogs. These canine ancestry tests allow you to confidently state that your mutt is part Irish wolf hound and give you key information about your pet’s heritage for insights into potential health issues. For example, if you find out one of your rescue dog’s parents was likely a purebred boxer, you could speak with your vet about breed-specific needs. Basepaws DNA CatKit promises information about your cat’s breed and traits with just a hair sample, though it offers swab kits for hairless cats. The kit also tells you how closely related your kitty is to wild cats like lions, tigers and ocelots.

Health and wellness tests 

There are a ton of health and wellness DNA tests. We found several specifically oriented to dieting and weight loss, including embodyDNA, Vitagene, DNAFit and the several options available through the Helix marketplace. While there definitely are some links between DNA and factors that contribute to weight, we advise taking these diet plans with a grain of salt, as DNA science is still a relatively young field. 

We similarly advise caution for the multitude of non-diet health and wellness DNA tests, which offer insights into your sleep, food sensitivities, and vitamin and mineral levels. And double that for medical information found in consumer DNA kit test results. While medical insights learned from taking an at-home DNA test may be interesting, it’s best not to take them too seriously. If you have a concern about a genetic predisposition to a disease, it’s best to talk to your doctor instead of relying on a direct-to-consumer kit. 

Paternity tests 

At-home paternity tests have been around much longer than other direct-to-consumer DNA tests. Most of them require you to collect cheek swab samples from a prospective father and child, which you then send off to a lab to determine paternity. For non-legal use, these tests can cost as little as $15, but tests that provide verified results that are admissible in court cost a few hundred dollars. 

Miscellaneous, fun DNA tests 

On the not-so-serious side of at-home DNA testing, there is a company that offers wine recommendations based on your genes. Vinome is part of the Helix marketplace. It creates a personalized taste profile for you based on your genes and offers a curated list of wines you can buy through the service. If you buy and rate the wines, Vinome hones in on your preferences and matches you to new products.

If you’re single and looking for something more than chance to guide your love life, you could also try a DNA-based dating service like DNA Romance. This service works using information about chemical attraction and relationships to make you a genetically ideal match.

Finally, if you happen to meet a special someone on DNA Romance and want to see what your future child together might look like, there’s BabyGlimpse by HumanCode. Like a very advanced Punnett square, BabyGlimpse compares your and your partner’s DNA to create a profile that examines which traits your offspring might inherit, including things like ancestral DNA, eye color and lactose intolerance.

Tips for taking your DNA test 

The DNA tests we reviewed either require a saliva or cheek cell sample. Saliva-collecting kits include a tube that’s marked with a fill line and sample number. The tube often has a liquid-filled cap with a stabilizer that acts as a preservative to protect your DNA from degradation during transport. Cheek swab sample kits include one or two swabs for scraping the insides of your cheeks for 30 seconds to a minute to collect cheek cells and some sort of container to place the used swabs into after collection. This prevents contamination. Our testers found upsides to both types of kits but generally preferred saliva collection kits, even though they took longer.

The trick for collecting a saliva sample is to give yourself plenty of time to create enough spit to fill your tube to the fill line (not including any bubbles). You should not eat or drink anything for at least an hour before collecting your sample, so it’s best to plan to collect your sample before eating. Our testers collected samples before lunch and found that thinking about the upcoming meal made saliva production easier, particularly as we collected multiple samples. Planning ahead and making sure you stay hydrated before you collect a saliva sample helps as well.

To prepare to take a cheek swab sample, you also have to refrain from eating for about an hour before. Swab kits generally contain more components, including one or two swabs and containers to protect the used swabs from contamination. We found it easiest to organize all the pieces first, to prevent any fumbling with a sample collection swab in hand. Some cheek cell kits put a stabilizing liquid in the sample containers, which required extra caution to prevent spilling.