Here's What to Ask About Consumer Genetic Testing

There's something undeniably alluring about spitting into a tube and finding out where your ancestors came from. Even the tests that can tell you whether your earwax is dry or wet (or whether you're at heightened risk for a certain disease) seem almost magical. And no one can deny the narrative appeal of using genetic testing to catch notorious serial killers.

Yet because our genetic information is so far-reaching and powerful, it's more important than ever to consider some big questions before you send off your DNA to 23andMe or National Geographic. The first thing to consider is medical: There's a big difference in quality between research-grade genetic tests and something you can buy off the shelf in a drug store. It's possible you could get a very scary result that may be a false positive, or that may not be as serious as it sounds. If you really want to be certain about your genes, talk to a genetic counselor.

Next, understand that there are both limitations and repercussions inherent in DNA testing. Media is full of accounts of people whose fun genetic testing upended generations of family lore. Not every lab has agreed on standards for processing samples or even what different genes signify, and there are equally as many stories of consumers taking multiple tests and getting vastly different results. This isn't even touching on personal data concerns.

Around 1 in 25 U.S. adults have gotten their DNA tested. It's probably going to become more common in the future. But it's also worth doing your research first — and asking yourself what you're really ready to know.