Over-the-counter genetic tests — tests that are available in pharmacies that are designed to determine a person’s potential for developing various health conditions — have become a popular method for finding out information on one’s own health quickly. But questions about their accuracy and reliability remain.

Let’s look at the possibilities — and risks — of over-the-counter genetic tests.

It’s very hard to definitively answer that question.

These tests can only test for a certain gene or genetic marker. And according to one 2019 study, two of the major brands are scientifically sound when it comes to doing so.

But the chances of a person developing a condition are often determined by more than just the presence of a certain gene.

There’s also not a lot of data available on how accurate results from at-home tests are, but there has been recent concern from professionals about the prevalence of false positives, per research published in 2018.

The bigger problem, however, comes from the lack of context provided with at-home testing kits, a concern outlined in a report published in 2010.

For example, when giving a prediction of a person’s risk for a certain disease, a test cannot explain the chances of it being a benign form. So while they’re pretty good at telling you if you have a particular gene, these tests simply cannot predict your likelihood for a disease with a great deal of accuracy.

Some popular ones are:

23AndMe Health + AncestrySeveral, such as diabetes, breast cancer, and celiac disease$199Also looks at ancestrySome users say results are hard to understand
ColorHereditary cancers and heart health$249Clear and detailed resultsMust be ordered by a doctor, either your own or of Color’s choosing
DNAFitGeneral health, fitness, and ancestry$113 —$377Board includes PhDs, sports nutritionists, and even bioethicistsNot technically OTC in the U.S. — as it’s a UK-based company; you’ll have to have it shipped to your home
CircleCommon cancers like breast, colorectal, and prostate$450Wide range of cancers and diseases, FDA approvedPricey, also must be shipped outside of UK
NebulaAncestry and health$99 —$999Whole genome testingRequires subscription to access health information

The main difference between relying on an OTC test versus a doctor for health information is the quality and depth of information you receive. There are many variables that can affect the outcome of an OTC test, so your results may not be as nuanced and informative as they would be if you consulted a professional. A doctor or medical professional can help provide clarity and context.

There are a few things to look out for to determine if an over-the-counter genetic test is right for you, like:

  • FDA approval. While no test is 100 percent accurate, an approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a good indicator of overall credibility.
  • Expert input. Check their website for any involvement of professionals from the medical or genomics field, such as scientists or bioethicists.
  • Easy-to-understand results. Read user reviews to see how easy to understand the results are. If many users say the results are difficult to understand, you might want to take them to a doctor who can discuss your results with clarity.
  • Privacy. Read the fine print to make sure you know what the company is doing with the data you provide to them.
  • Genetic counseling. Some companies offer professional consultations to help users understand what their results mean.

Some are approved by the FDA, but some are not.

Generally, checking for indicators of non-medical or less serious conditions, such as those that test for ancestry or athletic ability, are not. Those that test for more serious conditions usually have to pass certain FDA standards before being approved for retail shelves.

Read more at the FDA’s list of approved tests.

Where can I buy them?

Many pharmacies, or big-box stores like Target and Walmart, have them. You can also order them directly from the company.

What brands make them?

The most popular brand by far is 23AndMe, but some brands that make more health-focused tests are:

How much do they cost?

A genetic test that checks for a single condition will typically cost between $100 and $150. Those that check for several at once, or include ancestry, are usually closer to $200 but can cost up to $400.

Is it the same as an ancestry test?

Yes and no.

An ancestry test is a genetic test, but if you buy that alone, it won’t test for various health conditions. However, some ancestry tests come in a pack with tests for genetic likelihoods of diseases and health conditions.

Are tests 100 percent accurate?

The most important thing to know is that no test, no matter what kind it is, is 100 percent accurate.

All OTC genetic tests can have challenges in predicting a persons’ likelihood for a condition if there’s no family history of it — as there are not enough genetic markers in a person’s DNA to tip the test off to their likelihood. However, if your test is FDA approved, the accuracy of the test should be pretty close to doctor-grade testing.

As stated above, OTC genetic tests often don’t give a full picture of a person’s health as it relates to the condition being tested for — and false positives and negatives are also common.

For more detailed information or advice, talk with a doctor.

In general, the results of an FDA-approved genetic test purchased over the counter are pretty accurate, but their usefulness can be limited.

When it comes to more complex diseases and conditions, such as breast cancer or Alzheimer’s, there are several factors besides a single gene that determine a person’s risk, so an over-the-counter test can only give you so much information.

To get the most accurate answers to your health questions, consult a healthcare professional.