What you need to know before giving someone a DNA kit as a gift
Read this before you gift a DNA test kit
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DNA kits have exploded in popularity over the past several years, especially as companies like Ancestry have expanded their offerings to far more than just exploring your heritage—you can find and speak with lost relatives, learn about your genetic traits, and even glean insights into your health.
AncestryDNA test kits are consistently among the most popular products our readers purchase each month, and you’ll find them on many of our gift guides this holiday season. There are lots of people on your list who would love the opportunity to dig deep into their roots and learn more about their genetic makeup. But for some, it’s a gift that would be met with contention—what if your giftee discovers something seedy in their past? Or what if they refuse to use the kit because they’re worried about their DNA privacy?
Here are a few things you should keep in mind before you gift a DNA kit this holiday season.
1. Know what results a DNA kit provides
Some people may be apprehensive about what their results will look like once they complete a DNA kit. Will I find a long-lost sibling? Will I discover I’m a descendent of someone terrible, like Jack the Ripper? Will the police come to my house and try to arrest me for crimes my father committed? These are all real fears I had before delving into my family on Ancestry, and thankfully—so far—most of those fears have since been squashed.
The results from a DNA test kit can be deeply personal, but the actual format is standardized across all users. Knowing what to expect when the results come in can help alleviate anxiety people may have about taking DNA tests. Rest easy knowing your results won’t come in with a big red banner that says, “CONGRATULATIONS, YOUR GREAT-GRANDPARENTS WERE COUSINS.” Though, spoiler alert: Mine were (Thanks, Ancestry).
Ancestry’s DNA results are delivered through their website portal, where, depending on which kit you get, you can explore your DNA Story, your DNA Matches, an in-depth family tree, information about your genetic traits, and information about your health. Senior Staff Writer Courtney Campbell broke down her results in great detail in her review, if you'd like a closer look at what you can expect to learn from your own test. As you’re considering whether to gift an AncestryDNA kit, review the following options within Ancestry and whether your giftee would be both interested in and comfortable with learning them:
DNA Story: The user’s DNA story breaks down an individual’s ethnic background, telling them what percentage they belong to different nationalities. Within these percentages, users can further explore individual regions to discover which are most prominently displayed within their genetic makeup. It can also provide historical context about the region itself and when the user’s relatives likely migrated to their current homes. For DNA Story, think of a detailed chart with a person’s heritage, sprinkled with a little interactive history.
DNA Matches: The second tab within Ancestry allows users to discover who among the 15 million people using Ancestry they may be related to. Users can either opt in or out of this feature, so they can choose if they want to discover matches and let their matches find them. If selected, they get a list of their immediate family, as well as potential distant relatives and likelihood that they’re related. They even have the option to reach out to their newly discovered family members and explore shared family trees. If your giftee would love to know more about their genetic background, but doesn’t want to connect to any potential relatives, they can opt out of the matching feature and forego these results altogether, which would also mean they won’t show up in anyone else’s results.
ThruLines: This feature is great for people who are serious about digging into their family histories. Users who have both created a family tree on Ancestry and taken an AncestryDNA test can activate ThruLines and learn exactly who they may be related to through distant relatives. Essentially, ThruLines combs through the user’s family tree, as well as every public family tree on Ancestry, and makes estimates on how many people are related to specific ancestors. Senior Staff Writer Shayna Murphy, who also wrote about her experiences testing AncestryDNA, has developed a comprehensive family tree, so her ThruLines feature is packed with recommendations, potential ancestors, and shared matches.
AncestryDNA Traits: Unlike the other features listed above, AncestryDNA Traits does not come standard with an AncestryDNA test kit. For an extra $10, users can upgrade their results and received a detailed breakdown of their physical characteristics and how they compare to their DNA matches. AncestryDNA Traits is not 100% accurate, but it is a fun look at how nature and nurture affect a person’s genetic makeup—users can learn what makes their eyes blue, then discover what percentage of people with similar ethnicities have the same physical characteristics. We tried AncestryDNA Traits to see if this $10 add-on was worth it and would recommend it for anyone curious to learn more details like this. If your giftee is a science nerd who loves learning about how genetics affect their physical characteristics, it may be worth upgrading. If your giftee cares more about learning about their ancestry, skip this one. They can always add it on later, too.
AncestryHealth: This fall, Ancestry debuted a new product called AncestryHealth that delivers all the same aspects of the traditional DNA kit, plus new health insights derived from the user’s DNA, like which health conditions they may be predisposed to. This could make a good gift for those on your list who are curious about how their DNA affects their personal wellness, but could also lead to unnecessary panic among giftees who alarm easily. We are still in the process of testing AncestryHealth, so we will update this section once we have thoroughly analyzed the product. It’s also important to note that this feature is not available for everyone in the U.S. (it’s unavailable specifically in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island).
2. Find out what happens to DNA once it’s sent into the ether
Among those in my inner circle (and across the Internet), the greatest hesitation I hear about using a DNA kit is around what will happen to that person’s DNA once it’s in the void. When you send in your DNA, does it belong to the company? Primarily, people often worry about whether their DNA will be stored and sold to other entities, like research companies and police departments. Concurrently, if DNA testing companies were hacked, would a person’s DNA be susceptible to whomever took it?
Ancestry has a pretty robust privacy center, and before you activate your DNA kit, it walks you through a series of disclaimers that explain exactly how they’ll use your DNA.
- Users can control what happens to their DNA (mostly): Once you submit your DNA to Ancestry, you can decide whether you want to be connected to potential relatives, participate in further research, or delete your DNA results from the system entirely. In their privacy statement, Ancestry notes: “Once our laboratory partner has produced your DNA Data, the DNA and saliva (also referred to as “biological samples”) are stored so that they can be available for future testing.” So it is a bit unclear whether deleting your DNA results actually destroys the DNA stored in the lab.
- DNA results are encrypted: Ancestry uses a third-party lab to test results, but instead of receiving any identifying information about the user, the lab just receives an activation code, so at no point can the lab analyzing the DNA access personal information about the user. The person’s actual information is stored in an encrypted server.
- Participation in scientific research is optional: The Ancestry Human Diversity Project uses collected DNA to conduct scientific research to “help advance the study of human genetics, genealogy, anthropology and health.” You can read about this project in full on the AncestryDNA Informed Consent document. Basically, Ancestry can use your DNA for science, but only if you give permission—otherwise your DNA will sit on a shelf after testing. And if you delete your DNA results after providing consent, your DNA will be removed from the eligible list, but if it’s currently being used in a study, it will not be pulled.
- They have to get your consent to use your DNA otherwise: If Ancestry wants to use DNA for any other reasons, they have to receive the user’s written consent.
- ...unless the police call: Police departments and federal agencies continue to crack decades’ old cold cases through DNA matching—you likely heard on your favorite true crime podcast about the serial killer who was caught because their third cousin took a DNA test. Ancestry has a clause in their privacy statement that explicitly says they do not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement, but if hit with a subpoena or warrant, they will be forced to comply. So if my father hasn’t paid that parking ticket from 1982? I’m probably not going to get him arrested with my DNA kit. If my father was a prolific serial killer? I would get him arrested, and hopefully also sign a book deal.
3. Hear what real people have learned from using DNA kits
Before you gift a DNA kit, consider talking to people you know who have taken one. Not sure who’s taken a test? Honestly, just start asking—I was getting my hair done a few weeks ago and brought up to my hairdresser that I had just sent in a DNA kit. She immediately told me about her colleague who found a long-lost cousin using a DNA kit—they connected, met for coffee, and still stay in touch.
Personally, when I took the test, I was hoping I would find a long-lost sibling—my father was not faithful during his marriage to my mother, so I’m still waiting for a message from a half-sibling ready to become best friends. My DNA results are still processing, which means I haven’t had a chance to see them first hand yet and explore my matches. Instead, I developed a fully fleshed out family tree on the Ancestry site—there are thousands of records you can access for free, but I did end up upgrading my account once I got deep in the weeds. And what did I find?
A. Secret. Sibling.
Only it wasn’t mine—it was someone else in my immediate family’s. I found out my relative had two sons from a previous marriage—one of whom is active on the Ancestry site. I immediately called my mother and sister and walked them through the tree, but we’re still figuring out what to actually do with this information.
On our staff, several of our writers have tried AncestryDNA and written about their experiences. Courtney and her sister delved into their European roots, Staff Writer Isabelle Kagan learned more about her family’s South Asian heritage, and Shayna discovered she is a direct descendent of Thomas and Ann Putnam—two of the ringleaders of the Salem Witch Trials.
4. Don’t force your giftee to try it
You’ve read through the policies, understood where a person’s DNA could go, and even talked to your aunt’s friend who took a DNA test—but at the end of the day, taking a DNA test is incredibly personal, and you can never truly predict how someone will react to receiving a DNA kit unless you ask them point blank. The most you can do is respect the person’s decision—don’t force them to take it, allow them to do their own research, and support them no matter what they ultimately decide to do.
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