23andMe stands apart from its rivals by offering health screening as well as ancestry
- Provides health insights
- User-friendly site with easy to follow explanations
- Can export results to other sites
- Can’t import results from elsewhere
- Ancestry side is weak compared to, uh, Ancestry
- Can you handle bad health news?
If you want to learn a bit more about your genetic makeup, there’s no shortage of companies offering to rifle through your DNA. 23andMe is among the very best known, having had past investment from Google and GlaxoSmithKline.
Like other similar tests, it’ll tell you where your family roots are geographically, and let you trace your ancestors. If other people share some of your DNA on the site, 23andMe will even let you get in touch.
But while the majority of its rivals focus exclusively on ancestry, 23andMe has a not-so-secret weapon: if you buy the more expensive package, you get insights into your health, too.
23andMe review: What you need to know
23andMe is only very briefly a tangible product you hold in your hand. You’re sent a testing kit, you spit in a tube, and then pop it in the post (postage is included in the main price). A month or so later, you’ll be notified that your online account is filled with information about your lineage and (if you paid for the more expensive version) health.
That’s the basics, but there’s a lot more than this. Not all DNA tests are created equal, and 23andMe covers all the bases by testing for autosomal, Y-DNA and mtDNA, putting it ahead of some of its rivals. If you’ve glazed over with that sentence, the long and short of it is that it’s as thorough as they come, but I wrote a long explainer in our guide to the best DNA tests if you want to read up. Here’s my conclusion, though:
“An autosomal test covers the whole of your family tree, but gets muddled after four to five generations. mtDNA and Y-DNA testing only trace back through one half or other of the family line, but reach a lot further and can be good for proving a single common ancestor, potentially from as long as 10,000 years ago.”
There are other twists to it: women can’t take Y-DNA tests, but their male relatives can fill in the results on their behalf, for example. Seriously, just read the piece.
But the bottom line is that using three kinds of DNA test is doubly important, because 23andMe also allows you to export your results. Finding another site to analyse your results should be very simple given all three types of DNA tests are included. Sadly though, you can’t import results from elsewhere *to* 23andMe.
23andMe review: Price and competition
23andMe comes in two price tiers. The £79 test will fill you in on your ancestry and the £149 version will provide both ancestry and health.
In the UK, the main rivals only cover ancestry. Again, you can read more on our guide to the best DNA tests, but if your main interest is tracking down relatives from around the world, then you’re better served with Ancestry (£79 + shipping), which has a database of 14 million samples, significantly more than its main rivals, MyHeritage (£75 + shipping), Living DNA (£99 + shipping) and Family Tree DNA ($79 to $649, depending on which tests you go for).
But none of these offer health tests, so if you want those details, 23andMe is the only game in town. Is it worth it?
23andMe review: The DNA collection process
Once your order has been placed, you receive a box in the post. It looks like this:
Inside is a plastic vial that you fill with spit up to a line. It’s not an edifying process, and while I did have someone documenting it, I’m not going to share the pictures here for fear of becoming the next big meme. Suffice it to say, filling that little vial is harder than it looks, because you’re not supposed to eat or drink anything for 30 minutes prior to giving your sample and saliva seems to get performance anxiety.
Once filled, you post it back to 23andMe, where the scientists do their work. This is a long process, and takes three to five weeks, on average. When your results have been processed, you get an email telling you to log in.
23andMe review: The health results
Upon receiving that email, most people will make a beeline for their health results, and sure enough, all your results are there and ready to look at, from the frivolous to the life changing.
The serious, life-changing marker tests make you read through a brief tutorial before you can look, emphasising that risk is not the same as a diagnosis, while “not detected” is not the same as having no risk.
Clicking through these, I eventually found that I do not have any of the markers associated with a predisposition to any of the major conditions and illnesses tested for, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or colorectal cancer. You may not be so lucky, and you really do need to ask yourself whether this is something you want to know or not before buying.
The last of these – colorectal cancer – is new to 23andMe, and wasn’t in my batch of tests when I wrote my roundup. It’s good to see that the site keeps up with the latest medical science, and certainly means your £149 goes further.
“Carrier Status” also requires you to sit through a brief tutorial explaining the risk of passing on a genetic condition to children. At the time of writing, the list includes 44 conditions including Bloom Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis.
For me, the worst news was that I have a predisposition towards “age-related macular degeneration”. That’s vision deterioration in a person’s 60s or 70s. Not something to look forward to exactly, but it could have been a lot worse.
Then there are the more frivolous sections: “Wellness” and “Traits”. The former tells you whether you’re likely lactose intolerant or predisposed to weight gain – I’m not, though apparently nobody has told my scales.
“Traits”, on the other hand, gives you 37 predictions on lifestyle and personality traits based on your DNA. I likely have no bald spot (correct), no dimples (incorrect) and am unappealing to mosquitoes (sadly incorrect). Each one of these can be clicked through to explain the conclusions and it’s a fun, if considerably less scientific, way of exploring your DNA.
23andMe review: The ancestry results
The ancestry section of 23andMe is just as simple to use as the health side of things. You’re given an overall analysis of your composition – 75.1% British and Irish, in my case – as well as how your Maternal and Paternal Haplogroups migrated over the past 180,00 to 275,000 years.
It also lets you connect with DNA matches in the 23andMe database, which is certainly welcome, but it’s here it falls slightly flat compared to Ancestry. First, Ancestry started off as a site for making, researching and building family trees, so all the tools for building one are built in, even if the best bits are hidden behind a monthly subscription. 23andMe used to have family tree building tools, but if it’s still there I can’t find it, and the FAQ has no mention of it past 2015, which doesn’t bode well.
But even if it is hidden deep in there somewhere, it loses out to Ancestry on one key point: database size. In short, if you’re trying to track down relatives, you’ll have more luck with the 14-million strong Ancestry database than 23andMe’s nine million. An unscientific but revealing test: 23andMe has 1,135 DNA matches for me on its database. Ancestry has 37,846.
That could be quality over quantity, or even a reflection of my living relatives’ geographical location (i.e: more Europeans use Ancestry than 23andMe) but it’s still worth highlighting if family tree building is your main aim. Unfortunately, like 23andMe, Ancestry doesn’t let you import results either, so it’s very much one or the other here.
23andMe review: Verdict
That means if you’re looking at the £79 ancestry-only kit, then 23andMe isn’t really worth it. Go to Ancestry instead. The ability to build a family tree on top of your DNA discoveries just makes it a more appealing package all round.
If health is your interest, though, then the £149 pack is very competitive indeed. It’s a pity that the company doesn’t sell a health-only version, so you can mix and match, but as it doesn’t, 23andMe stands alone as the most comprehensive DNA testing kit you can buy.
Just make sure you want to know the answers before you order.