10 Things You Should Know Before Gifting a DNA Test

Anne-Marie Hays

Last Updated: March 16th, 2021

Infographic featuring the top 10 things to consider before gifting a DNA test. Information contained in the graphic can be found in the article text.

During the holiday season, many people agonize over what gifts to buy for those notoriously hard-to-shop-for friends and family. What can you give to your picky mother-in-law who isn't quite old enough to only want Almond Roca? 

If you've watched enough cable TV commercials and well-targeted YouTube ads, you may have come to the conclusion that a consumer DNA test would be a great gift idea. Before you click "Add to Cart," here are 10 things to consider before purchasing a DNA kit as a gift for a loved one:

1. Expect the unexpected

If you take an autosomal test, many companies feature a "matches" section, with other living people who have also taken a DNA test, and share DNA in common with you. DNA testing algorithms use the amount of DNA you share to estimate your biological relationship to each other. 

This doesn't mean don't do it. Just be aware that DNA has the power to both solve family mysteries and create them. 

You can definitely take steps to hide your identity, but the testing algorithms will automatically populate you as a match, into thousands of other peoples' accounts. 

Consider this personal account from Lizbeth Meredith, author of Pieces of Me: 

"I was given a DNA kit as a present. I'm glad I was older and rooted in my identity pretty firmly at the time, because I learned that the one I had been assured I was a part of (Native American) was no part of my real genetic makeup. As one who'd looked her father up through a lawyer at age 20 and had a frail sense of tribe and family, getting this info was a shocker.

I do believe people need to consider what happens if they learn that the parentage information that they've grown comfortable with isn't accurate. Are they in a position to metabolize that information well, or with difficulty? What if their family has secret crimes hidden, and due to their DNA being a part of a record, that relative might now be held to account? Will they be okay with that information?"

As Meredith suggests, direct-to-consumer DNA test results have the potential to rock an individual's deeply rooted identity. Here are a few situations where test results can be life-changing, both for the good or bad: 

  • People who were adopted
  • People who don't know their birth mother, father, or family well
  • People who were sperm or egg donors
  • People whose dad isn't their dad, but never knew

Those are just some of the tricky situations where a family finder test can both help to resolve old wounds or to open up new ones. The problem is that you can't guarantee a warm and fuzzy result. 

On the other hand, you have no way of stopping everyone you know that you share DNA with (which is thousands of people), from taking a test and showing up as a DNA match in one of these situations. Within several company interfaces, members with results can message each other, exchange information, and talk on the phone, trying to figure out their connection. Each new match is a match closer to you. 

Consider another possible outcome from Bridget FitzPatrick, a writer for USInsuranceAgents.com

"My sister-in-law started researching my family’s genealogy years before it became fashionable on Ancestry.com. No one gave it much thought until we were contacted by an uncle we never knew we had — nor did my father. They shared the same father none of us had ever met, since he left the family when my dad was an infant. My uncle found us through Ancestry.com, and only because his own children were curious about their heritage. 

My uncle thought he was an only child for all of his 55 years of life, only to find out that he had two deceased half-sisters, and a half brother – my father. A cross-country reunion ensued, just three weeks before my dad succumbed to leukemia. But not before meeting his brother, 26 years his junior. The likeness in their looks, mannerisms, and mechanical aptitude was uncanny to witness. My uncle looks like a twin to one of my brothers!

The impetus for choosing Ancestry.com for our DNA testing was the family-finding feature, especially when multiple family members provide their own DNA. More family members participating in Ancestry.com’s testing results in more accurate family origin records. I have since connected with relatives on both of my parents’ family tree because of their wide web of DNA results. Plus, I’ve eliminated much of the mystery behind my ethnicity.

Although it was difficult to get my mother and mother-in-law, both in their eighties, to spit into a test tube, no one has been disappointed with Ancestry.com. It has given them a lot of joy to learn more about their distant, kindred souls. And while my father’s reunion just before passing was worthy of a Hallmark Channel movie, I am aware that not all results are happy ones. If there are any skeletons better left in the closet, a tester may want to reconsider.

My uncle and I, meanwhile, have become close enough to pick up the phone around all holidays and share more family member discoveries. My father didn’t find the brother he didn’t know existed: Ancestry.com did."

Here's one more example, coming to us from Becky Beach, Designer and Blogger at MomBeach.com:

"A few months ago, I received a gift of 23andMe for my birthday from my mother-in-law. There is a DNA Relatives feature that lets you connect with people who are related to you.

I found out that my paternal grandmother was half Cherokee! 

There was a whole family line that I didn't know I was related to. I connected with a man named Paul on Skype, who lives in the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. We really hit it off. He invited me and my family to visit him and our new family during Thanksgiving break.

Tragedy struck and Paul ended up passing away from a heart attack last month. I am blessed that I got the chance to meet him before he passed. I'm now really excited to meet my new extended family that we never knew about."

2. Check the data and privacy policy

Before you buy a DNA test to give to someone as a gift, consider the company's stance on data and privacy. "The privacy and security of your data are super important," says David Nicholson, co-founder of Living DNA. He suggests that you "Check what happens with your information, is it sold or are you in charge like with Living DNA?"

"Ensure your privacy," advises Bart Wolbers, a researcher and chief science writer at Alexfergus.com, a site that investigates the scientific validity of different health interventions. He holds degrees in Clinical Health Science (MS), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS), and Philosophy (BA; MA). Wolbers explains, "Many companies have sold customer data and continue to do so. Just to be sure, I would recommend taking privacy measures, such as not ordering a kit under your own name. That way, the outcome is never traceable to you anymore. In the worst-case scenario, for instance, an employer might be able to learn that you've got a rare high risk for heart conditions even though you work in construction, or distant family may be able to learn about your existence even though you've not consented for such potential life-changers."

As Nicholson mentioned, genetic testing companies have their own fine print regarding data collection and privacy. 

"People should be wary enough to read the fine print of the DNA testing service in case the terms of service indicate that the testing company can re-sell or freely reveal a user's data and under what circumstances," advises Dr. David Koepsell JD, PhD. Koepsell is an attorney and has written academically about DNA and ethics. He is also the founder of EncypGen, a site where consumers can sell their de-identified DNA data to researchers for academic study

"Ordinarily, it should require a subpoena before companies reveal your private details," says Koepsell, "but that might not be the case under your tester's terms. If you are interested in maintaining the privacy of your data, as many people are becoming, then be careful not to agree to having your data shared freely, or resold without getting some benefit yourself. When your genetic data is shared, it may be used to reveal much about you, your health, and your heritage that you may want to keep private. Moreover, it can reveal those things about your relatives who might not realize this and might later come to resent it. Look carefully at the terms of service, and seek companies that offer the greatest degree of privacy and protection of your data."

What is your gift recipient's stance on data and privacy? If this is a hot-button issue, or they have had a bad experience in the past, with identity theft or data breach issues, you may want to forgo keeping the gift a surprise, let them know the reasons why you were considering this as a gift for them, and get their opinion. 

3. Research technology requirements

If the person you are getting the test for hasn't used a computer in years or isn't a whiz on the iPad, you should know that this may cause some trouble. People will need to know how to turn on the internet, go to a specific website, have an email address that they know how to access on their own, create an account, remember (not lose) their password, and navigate a website to understand most of the popular direct-to-consumer DNA providers results. 

Many DNA testing companies, including leaders like 23andMe and AncestryDNA deliver results as a digital, interactive map with tons of data, percentages, visuals, videos, etc. 

Can you picture your grandma doing all that? If not, you will need to be there, with her, in person, to help her read the results. 

You can also order an alternative test that does send a results packet in the mail, like African Ancestry or LivingDNA which presents results online, but also lets users order a personalized book about their results. 

4. Be wary of dietary advice

There are many types of DNA testing. You can get a test about ancestry or one that helps you to understand your physical traits, health risks, and predispositions about taste, nutrition, and fitness. 

Stella Metsovas is a former competitive athlete, as well as an author, consultant, and specialist in human nutrition and food science. She shares this advice:

"I would like to recommend that consumers do not look to DNA testing for tailoring a customized food plan since it’s still too complex of a science to apply overall.  

Here is my response to HEALTHLINE:

DNA companies refer to these tests as 'personalized dietary advice,' which stems from the theory that human needs vary considerably from diet to diet," she said. “For example, ketosis might work wonders on Jane, helping regulate insulin levels and thereby [helping her with] losing weight, while maintaining lean muscle tissue. Susie might respond unfavorably due to various health factors such as hypothyroidism, an indication that there might be other issues in the body, including the microbiome.”

She adds, "The tricky part of the model is that your lifestyle plays a huge role in how your genes are expressed." 

5. Not all tests are the same

Another thing to consider when gifting a DNA test, advises Nicholson: "Not all ancestry DNA tests are the same; many only look at one type of DNA. Check if the test covers a full range of DNA types which allows the company to provide both recent and deep ancestry reports."

Consider whether your giftee might already have an affiliation with, or prefer testing through a specific company. Not all tests will provide the same type of results, or allow customers to upload their own third party sequenced DNA data. 

If your mother wants to see if she has more living cousins to help build the family tree through Ancestry, only an AncestryDNA test will do. If she wants to see if she and her friend from around the block, who have the same eyes, actually are distantly related, it's easier to take the same brand's autosomal test because results will automatically be tested against each other based on the amount of DNA shared. Basically, if everyone is doing it together, make sure you buy the same brand. Or, you will be waiting for DNA matches that never arrive. 

Sometimes, people will watch a TV show or overhear a story highlighting DNA results, and then have specific expectations that they will have a similar experience. If you are giving a DNA test as a gift, make sure the intended recipient has reasonable expectations for the kind of test they will be receiving. You'll also want to ask about the company's return and refund policies. 

6. Some tests include health screenings

If you are giving a test that offers any kind of health screening or risk screening, be cautious. Some companies, like AncestryDNA and 23andMe, offer ancestry and health combination tests, where your loved one will find out about their origins, but may also be alerted to some genetic predispositions or health risks. 

In general, they may not love getting the health information mentioned from a gift. If your loved one is interested in such insights, Wolbers warns, "Ensure you're getting science-based recommendations. Some newer companies on the market (not naming names here) offer scientific studies and justification for any recommendations they make based on your SNPs. Without such recommendations, it's hard to tell why you're implementing one type of advice rather than another."

If health screening is a priority, you may want to use a company like Helix that offers genetic counseling to help put results into perspective. 

7. Giving samples can be tricky

When you order a direct-to-consumer DNA test, a kit comes in the mail. The kit includes instructions for online activation and making a sample. With several of the DNA testing companies, the more genetic relatives take the same test, the easier some aspects of the test are to interpret. As contributor Bridget FitzPatrick mentioned above, it can sometimes be difficult to get a full saliva sample from people who are elderly, ill, or on medication that makes one's mouth dry. 

Some test-takers find the saliva/tube sample difficult to do correctly. Remember, if you just ate lunch or kissed your spouse, your sample can be contaminated, meaning that a test taker can return their genetic sample, then wait several weeks, before being informed that they need to provide a new sample. However, if there is an issue with your sample, most companies will provide a new sample collection kit free of charge.

For those who can have a hard time collecting enough saliva into a tube, there is lots of advice available online. Additionally, it might be a good idea to choose a DNA kit that uses cheek swabs rather than the saliva sample. 

8. Delivery may be unpredictable

If you want to get someone a DNA kit as a gift for a holiday or birthday, you should consider shipping time, especially if your DNA kit was purchased during a holiday sale promotion, which can extend the time it takes to receive. 

For those who are worried about showing up empty-handed to a party or a gift exchange, this might be an issue. Here are a couple of solutions: 

Some DNA testing companies sell kits at U.S. retailers, so you don't have to order them online and wait for delivery, which can be unpredictable around the winter holidays. To save yourself frustration, time, and gas mileage, check local availability online or over the phone before you venture out. A good resource is Brickseek, a third-party application that checks inventory at local store locations for retailers like Target, Walmart, and CVS. 

Here are a few examples that have retail distribution throughout the country. 

Keep in mind that not every test is available in stores. Many DTC DNA testing companies only provide the tests "directly to the consumer" via online or over the phone orders. 

Not to worry. If you are looking to go with a DNA testing service that doesn't have local retail distribution, and your kit hasn't arrived in time for the holiday or event, consider printing a downloadable gift card, like these from AncestryDNA and 23andMe or create your own through free card makers like Adobe Spark and Canva. Just because the kit didn't arrive in time to present it at the party, doesn't mean that the recipient won't like it, or that you have to be embarrassed because you can't bring it in hand. Consider that you can likely get the kit shipped to the gift recipient's address instead, or you can forward it to them once you receive it. If you want to provide more details about the test you got them, print out some of the company's test information and just include it in a card. 

9. Results aren't instant

If you are going to get together with family for a holiday, family reunion, or another event, you need to plan in advance. Results aren't instant. Many companies take up to two months for processing, and that only starts after your sample gets back to the lab. So, if you are planning an event where you want to discuss, compare, and contrast everyone's individual results, make sure to gift the tests EARLY, so that by the time your family event comes up, your results will be ready. 

10. Find out about updates, upgrades, and subscriptions

Once you take a test, there are likely going to value-added upgrades available. With an AncestryDNA site subscription, you get more than just a DNA test; you get additional insights from your access to family trees and historical records. 

If you get a free trial to the company's added services, consider waiting until your results are ready, so that you can use the free trial period to see whether the added benefits are worth it to you. 

Are you considering a DNA test? Check out what consumers have to say about popular DNA testing companies, including 23andMe and AncestryDNA to help with your decision. 

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