How do you check out an online DNA test for its reliability?

How do you know if a DNA company you found online is reputable? And whether its results are reliable? These are common questions. And they are difficult to answer.

If you're asking about tests that will give you ancestry or genealogy information, the International Society of Genetic Genealogy is a great place to turn. Their beginner's guide section has a list of articles to get you headed down the right track. I've also written about choosing between the options in this area of DTC testing before and linked to other articles with advice in this blog post.

Companies have a lot of freedom in marketing DNA tests online and through commercials and social media posts. But not all DNA tests that claim to give you information about how your body works or what health risks you carry are the same. 

To be a savvy consumer, a website review is a great place to start. Investigating details on a company website can tell you a lot about them and how reliable their testing might be.

Here’s a checklist to help you begin your detective work. The ideal DTC genetic testing company's website should have: 

  • A description of what their DNA test(s) tells you and the technology they use to do it
  • CLIA and CAP numbers clearly listed on the home page
    • This is proof they use a lab with qualified staff and lab techniques and are abiding by at least baseline standards and that their approval is up-to-date.
    • Note that CLIA and CAP alone aren't sufficient evidence of a company's legitimacy. Even some questionable companies claim CLIA certification and CAP accreditation (review Soccer Genomics's site as an example). 
  • A toll-free contact phone number
  • An online "chat box" or email address to send questions to
    • You should get a response back within 24-48 hours, especially if the company promises a customer service team.
  • A section listing the names and credentials of their employees
    • There should be a team of scientists and on that team should be ones with advanced degrees in genetics. Their science team members should be listed by name
    • If the marketing team is a lot larger than the science team, stop and think what that might mean about the company's motivations and goals.
    • Review the "We're hiring!" section of the site, if there is one -- this can give you an idea of the company's priorities and where they are investing their resources. 
    • A company that includes certified genetic counselors on their team gets automatic bonus points! Genetic counselors tend to be pretty tough on DTC companies and expect rigorous science and high-quality testing and reporting. We see people make life-changing decisions after DNA testing, and because of that, won't settle for low-quality tests.
  • A reference section citing the medical studies that support their testing
    • Studies should be recent -- roughly within the past three to five years.
    • If an article they list is behind a paywall, you should contact the company and request to read it. They should send a copy to you. Having your emails ignored is a big red flag!
    • Studies cited should have been published in reputable* medical/science journals (*This can be hard to determine unless you are an expert in the given field of the journal; everyone should be aware there are predatory science journals that will publish anything if someone pays for it, whether or not the science is solid.)
  • Information on the site that allows you to gauge how long the company has been in business
    • Links to news articles and press releases about them, written by others
  • Sample reports you can see before deciding whether to order their test or not
    • Reports showing what both "positive" and "negative" results look like should be available, whether or not you've put a DNA test in the online shopping cart. 
  • A “Terms of Service” document and privacy policy
    • Like sample reports, you should be able to review these before you get to the online shopping cart section. 
    • Read them carefully. They should explain what happens to your biological sample of DNA (does it get stored?), who will get your genetic data after testing's complete (will it be sold to pharma?), and whether you have choices about what is done with your data. 

Beware of companies whose websites are simplistic or do not state where they are based. Some DNA companies you'll run across online are based out of countries without oversight of business practices.

There are a number of online genomics companies using shaky science to back up big claims. Don't fall for one of these! If a claim sounds too good to be true, there is a chance it is. Make sure to do your due diligence before you place that test into your online checkout cart.

A special side note: Companies that talk about testing your telomeres or mitochondrial DNA for health, medical, or longevity purposes are ones of which to be especially wary. The analysis and medical interpretation of testing on these two things are much more difficult to decipher than standard DNA testing, and bold claims about at-home tests that analyze the telomeres or mitochondrial DNA are to be approached with caution, and suspicion.

Have you already picked out a test you want but are having some reservations about ordering it or sending back your sample? Reach out for a one-time session, and I'll be happy to go through the company and its sample reports with you before you decide.