Ancestry vs 23andMe: which DNA test service is best for you?

AncestryDNA vs 23andMe
(Image credit: Ancestry / 23andMe)

The commercial DNA test kit market has been a big deal for several years now, and two of the biggest players are Ancestry and 23andMe. On the face of it they offer very similar services: both enable you to find DNA relatives, explore your ancestry and even discover how much Neanderthal DNA is kicking around inside you, and both have a second tier that analyses your DNA to let you know of health risk factors and other key health issues. But they’re quite different in terms of the information they provide. So which is best for you?

Ancestry vs 23andMe: what’s the sales pitch?

Ancestry is the world’s largest genealogy service and the world’s largest for-profit DNA company. Globally it has 20 billion searchable family history records and the DNA records of 18 million people. It “harnesses the information found in family trees, historical records, and DNA to help people gain a new level of understanding about their lives.”

23andMe is focused primarily on health and has over 12 million customers. It says “we’re all about real science, real data and genetic insights that can make it easier for you to take action on your health.” Those insights aren’t available in the entry-level Ancestry + Traits service, however – you’ll need to buy the Health + Ancestry service for that.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: how much do they cost?

The AncestryDNA kit costs $99 / £79 / AU$129 and is frequently discounted by the likes of Amazon, but the price doesn’t tell the full story: many of the service’s most appealing features, such as the ability to access a huge range of historical records to trace your ancestry, require a subscription plan.

The 23andMe Ancestry + Traits service, which doesn’t use your DNA to provide any health information, is $99 / £79 (around AU$145). The Health + Ancestry service is $199 / £149 (about AU$300). There’s much less retail discounting of 23andMe than some rivals.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: what data do they provide?

Ancestry is a relatively new entrant into the health screening space: for years its DNA testing was about tracking relatives, not checking health, so its health reporting is solid but isn’t as wide-ranging as 23andMe’s. There are just over 20 health reports, so for example where 23andMe looks for 40+ different carrier statuses Ancestry only looks for three. The available reports include common cancers, connective tissue disorders and heart and blood health.

23andMe breaks its reports into categories: ancestry, traits, health preconditions, wellness, and carrier status. Some are more useful than others, so for example under Trait Reports you can get “ability to match musical pitch”, “fear of heights” and “asparagus odor detection”.

The important stuff here is the health data, which is very comprehensive. It includes predispositions towards type 2 diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, BRCA1/2-related cancers, Celiac disease, kidney disease and other chronic conditions while the Carrier Status can flag over 40 different conditions including polycystic kidney disease and cystic fibrosis.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: how do I provide a sample?

Both services use saliva samples and both work in much the same way: you spit into the provided tube, seal it and post it off. It’s very important that you activate your sample online before you stick it in the Jiffy bag, however: if you don’t then they’ll have no idea whose sample they’ve received.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: how long do the DNA tests take?

It usually takes between 6 and 8 weeks for Ancestry to process your sample and generate its reports.

23andMe says its tests take between 2 and 4 weeks to be returned. Both services will email you to keep you informed of progress.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: how easy is it to understand the results?

Ancestry’s results are very focused on geography, with a fascinating interactive map enabling you to see where your DNA relatives are from. The health reports are clear and provide bulleted information on the key bits of information, so for example if you have an elevated risk of a particular condition it’ll tell you what that means and whether you should speak to your healthcare provider.

23andMe’s dashboard is colourful, easy to navigate and provides your genetic information in lots of visually interesting ways, and it also provides a lot of detail about each kind of information – so for example in its health reporting it goes into detail about what particular conditions are and what the implications of an elevated genetic risk may be.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: what else do I need to know?

There are three key things to think about with any DNA testing service, including Ancestry and 23andMe. Those issues are data quality, health risk reports and data sharing.

Quality first. If you’re using DNA testing to discover your family history and you’re not from white European ancestry, you may find the experience disappointing: the majority of DNA data and historical records held by organisations are from and about white people of European heritage: as The Atlantic reported in 2018, 80% of DNA data in such services are from white Europeans and there were particularly “noticeable gaps” among “Africans, Middle Easterners, Central Asians, Southeast Asians, and indigenous Americans”. DNA firms are trying to address that but it’s a slow process and it’s not without some controversy.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: what health risks can and can’t tell you

With health risk reporting it’s really important to understand that risks are not predictions or certainties. Having a slightly elevated risk of something doesn’t mean that you’ll get it, and getting a genetic all-clear doesn’t mean that you won’t. Both Ancestry and 23andMe make this clear, especially for more serious conditions.

Health risk indicators should be used to help you make healthy lifestyle choices, so for example if you’re a smoker of any description and you discover an elevated risk of COPD or lung cancer that’s a pretty big motivator to help you quit. However, if you’re really worried about a specific condition – because breast cancer runs in your family, perhaps, or because you’re worried you might be a carrier of a particular condition – then it’s wise to speak to a qualified health professional instead.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: how private is your DNA data?

Both firms’ data sharing is opt-in, so your data won’t be shared with third parties without your consent, and in the case of 23andMe there are lots of things you can opt into including disease-specific research. You can also opt out of letting other customers see you in their DNA matches.

If you’re a US customer it’s worth knowing that your opt-outs don’t affect the federal government or law enforcement. So if you’re planning the crime of the century it’s probably a bad idea to put your DNA on file.

Ancestry vs 23andMe: which one is best for me?

Both services are very good, provide lots of useful information and make it easy to understand your results, but they have very different focuses. Ancestry is a genealogy service that does a bit of health reporting, and 23andMe is a health reporting service that does a bit of genealogy.

That means the choice really comes down to what kind of information you’re looking for. If your main focus is on identifying people who share some of the same DNA markers as you and you don’t mind shelling out for a subscription to access all the genealogy features, then Ancestry is going to be the more compelling product. And if you’re more interested in your health markers and whether you’re genetically predisposed to perfect pitch, then 23andMe will be the better choice.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.