What Can Those Mail-Order DNA Tests Reveal About Your Beauty?

23andMe showed me that at least one thing about my appearance makes me a genetic outlier.

As someone who was raised by her biological parents, both of whom have a pretty clear idea of their respective lineages, I've never been able to really justify being intrigued by mail-order DNA tests that tell you "where you come from." Do I need scientific confirmation of everything I've always known and inferred? No. Do I want to know about which genetic variants I carry that may not affect me but could cause health problems for a child I'd have? Considering I'm doing everything in my power to avoid procreating, not particularly.

So it's never been a high priority for me to spend 10 minutes hocking dry-mouth loogies into a plastic vial and ship it off to a lab, despite my inexplicable fascination.

Last Thanksgiving, however, a friend of our dinner host just happened to have his 23andMe results printed out and in his pocket (I have no idea why — perhaps he has a hard time starting conversations and needed a prop?), and he let me take a look. I was surprised to see that, in addition to things like your ethnic composition, there was an entire section of reports on physical traits.

The inexplicable fascination was suddenly explicked! It has a beauty purpose! One of these tests could explain (explick!), scientifically, why I'm so darn cute. OK, not exactly — but 23andMe can give you a better idea of how your genetic makeup (makeup like structure, not cosmetics) impacts your physical features, and if your particular traits match what's most common among those with a similar background.

The folks at 23andMe kindly sent over one of their kits, which is so simple that I was sure I was going to screw it up, if only because a) I couldn't stop laughing at how the box says welcome to you because I kept picturing Kristen Wiig in a swan boat saying "Welcome to me," and b) the vial I was about to spit into over and over (after not drinking even water for more than a half-hour, as directed) reminded me of one of those women-can-pee-standing-up-too funnels.

I managed to pull myself together, though, and, after the collection process, dropped a sealed box of precious drool into a public mailbox, which felt incredibly unnatural.

While you're waiting for the results, you're encouraged to answer as many questions as you can through your online 23andMe account, regarding everything from illnesses you've been diagnosed with to whether or not you sneeze when you eat dark chocolate (which I didn't even know was a thing). This self-reported, anecdotal information doesn't affect your reports, but when it's paired with genetic results, it contributes to a more detailed picture of the kinds of attributes shared by those with a similar background.

A couple months after mailing my glandular goo to faceless scientists, I got an email notifying me that my reports were ready.

Even though my personal and professional passions made me eager to check out my Traits Reports, I looked at my Ancestry Reports first. As I expected, there was nothing very surprising. I'm of 98.9% European descent, with 95.8% of that considered Ashkenazi. (In layman's terms, I'm an Eastern European Jew, and can we please not get into a semantics argument about the dual meaning — religion versus ethnicity — of the word Jewish? Thanks.) It was fun to see that the other one percent of me was mostly Middle Eastern, with a teensy-tiny surprise that took me back to my Tinder days.


I also learned that I'm a little bit Neanderthal, but most people are probably more Neanderthalian (about as real of a word as explicked) than me.

After learning that I do not carry the variant for a number of diseases I've never heard of but sound like they're named after celebrities (Zellweger Syndrome! Usher Syndome!) I moved on to my Traits Reports.

First, under the Face section, I learned:

  • I am genetically unlikely to have a cleft chin.
  • I am genetically unlikely to have cheek dimples.
  • I am genetically unlikely to have a unibrow.
  • I am genetically unlikely to have a widow's peak.

All true for me! Though I do have a cowlick front and center in my hairline that could be mistaken for a widow's peak.

I also learned that 65% of 23andMe customers who are genetically similar to me have dark hazel, light brown, or dark brown eyes. I have medium-brown eyes, if do say so myself, but I assume that counts as typical for my makeup. A big chunk of my family — including my half-sister, maternal aunt and paternal first cousin — all have bright-blue eyes, though, which is apparently very rare for those who run in our genetic crowd.

Here's where things got interesting — to me, at least.

I have freaky-deaky attached earlobes. I always thought of that as something that wasn't uncommon to one particular genetic type, though, and rather just the rarer of the two types of lobes universally. Now I'm curious if there's an ethnicity where, like, everyone's earlobes are attached.

In the Hair section, I learned that most people genetically similar to me have dark brown hair, which I pretty much assumed as the dark-brown-haired child of two dark-brown-haired parents. However, the results also said that only 6% of 23andMe customers with a similar background have red hair, which fascinated me because my paternal grandmother, Ethel, was a natural redhead. (I've always wondered if that contributed to how auburn my hair was when I was younger.)

In terms of texture, almost 80% of the 23andMe-ers I have a lot of gene stuff in common with have either straight or wavy hair, and I fall into the latter category. I can coax my waves into loose curls on some days, but my niece, Elyssa, has tight curls, which, according to these reports are a single-digit-percentage rarity. (I always thought curls were pretty common among Ashkenazi folk!)

In the Skin Reports, I wasn't surprised to see that I'm likely to have "fair to beige" skin — and it looks like their idea of beige is a pretty deep caucasian tan. Although I'm fair-skinned these days, I was always capable of tanning quite easily when I allowed myself as a kid. I call those The Uninformed Years. And speaking of sun exposure, as someone with a freckly nose, I was surprised to see that fewer than half of my genetic compatriots had more than a couple freckles.

There's also a Wellness Reports section, where I learned that I'm probably tolerant of lactose (true), that I probably consume less caffeine than other genetic makeups (maybe?), and I'm unlikely to flush after drinking alcohol — unless I'm really drunk and then I'll definitely forget to flush. THANK YOU, I'LL BE HERE ALL WEEK.

Interestingly, 23andMe recently added on more results to my reports as they've developed the ability to analyze such information: sleep stuff. I discovered that I don't have the variant that would make me a deep sleeper — ain't that the truth — and that I'm not the type to flail about in my sleep.

I kind of love that they're able to continue giving you information about your DNA as it becomes possible. And even though I've completed all the questions initially asked before my reports came back, they're always adding new ways to contribute to research by answering questions used only for the purpose of furthering an understanding of genetic traits.

I think it would be amazing to see a test like this get super-specific about physical features that are of interest in the beauty realm, like the likelihood to get blackheads versus whiteheads, what age you'll probably start going gray, or if you possess a genetic tendency to have a really great ass without working out. Those reports are probably waaaay off in the distant future — and might require more than a couple hundred bucks — but I wouldn't be surprised if the technology already exists.

In the meantime, it's pretty cool to get a basic run-down of my genetic beauty fundamentals and see how they fit in — or don't — with people whose ancestry looks a lot like mine.

  • Have you ever done a mail-order DNA test?
  • What genetic information about your physical features would you be most interested in learning?
  • Have you ever tried repeatedly spitting with a dry mouth? It's kind of torturous.