At-home genetic testing kits: are they worth the racket?

Tests from 23andMe are insanely popular, but the information they provide seems to be anything but conclusive

In recent years, we’ve seen a surge in popularity of at-home genetic testing kits like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. The allure of these products is obvious; you get to know more about the most important person you know: YOU.

23andMe testing kits have become extensively popular thanks in part to a pervasive marketing campaign, especially around the winter holidays. What better gift is there to give your family than the gift of identity? So far, 23andMe have managed to build a genetic catalogue of nearly 5 million people based on this drawing factor, which seems huge.

But how accurate are these genetic readings? Can they be interpreted scientifically? Well, the easy answer is no. But, it’s complicated.

All 23andMe tests require a DNA sample gathered from a self-administered saliva swab, which is mailed off and tested in a lab. Customers of 23andMe receive a genetic reading in the mail, which breaks down their racial composition and, for an additional fee, predicts common health and wellness vulnerabilities based on their profile.

What these tests fail to convey is that the information provided to customers is based solely on 23andMe’s existing database of 5 million people, not on worldwide statistics. Suddenly, in terms of global context, that database number seems rather small.

Experts advise customers of 23andMe, beware: health predispositions cannot be determined based on genetic make up alone.

Heather Douglas, a genetic counsellor thinks these tests should be more upfront about the variables that determine an individual’s overall health. “Someone reading their own results may see something like ‘No genetic mutations were found in colon cancer susceptibility genes’ and think their risk of colon cancer is low,” she says, “Whereas a genetic counsellor will have the wisdom and experience to know that the same person’s colon cancer risk could still be up to 80 per cent depending on personal medical history, family history, and what genes were tested.”

The field of genetic counselling is much more complicated than a simple mail-in swab test. Lifestyle, environmental factors and medical history must all be considered in determining disease and illness susceptibility.

On the bright side, the popularity of at-home testing kits has certainly been beneficial to the growing genetic counselling industry. Many people opt to refer to genetic counsellors like Douglas to interpret the results of their at-home kits, and in turn receive a more holistic approach to determining their health concerns.

Should you wish to do an at-home genetic make-up test of your own, consider consulting a professional like Douglas at some point during the process. And be warned that the results are best used as a guideline – and should be taken with a grain of salt. Alternatively, skip the middleman entirely and head straight to your local geneticist instead.

Don’t ask people about their scars.

You don’t know how they got them or if its appropriate or traumatizing for you to ask.

What I learned from my journey as a burn victim

Almost two years ago I made a clumsy mistake mixing stovetop potions. I was melting down a mixture of baking soda and coconut oil and over-estimated how long it would take to become warm on the element. Before I knew it my kitchen was filled with smoke, and as I was running the smoking pot out the front door, I tripped.

I spilled about half a cup of searing hot coconut oil on my right hand. Having burned myself many times before working as a barista, I went instinctively for the cold tap. I then watched as all the skin from the back of my hand detached from my body and slid down the drain. Of all the burns I’d had, I’d never seen that much skin come off straight away. But I didn’t feel much pain so I didn’t think I had hurt myself too bad (I later learned this is a common symptom of second degree burns due to epidermal nerve damage).

I had plans to go to a party that night and I didn’t want to miss it. So I called my boyfriend Scott for help since I didn’t know what to do. We called Telehealth and asked for their advice and they of course told me to go to the hospital.

Scott took me to the ER. About an hour total after the incident, I was in the waiting room of Toronto General Hospital (TGH) and the pain began to set it. Without a cold compress the pain was so severe that I’d go into hysterics. The nurses did a good job of replenishing my ice packs as they’d melt. It was determined that I had suffered both first and second degree burns from my wrist to my second knuckles.

I was lucky to have a few people to comfort me and bring me snacks in the ER.

But eventually it came time to bandage me up. And so I got a shot of morphine, hydromorphone pills and a handful of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Not sure how well that cocktail of painkillers settled in my body but it definitely did the trick. They bandaged and braced me up, put me in contact with the CCAC, a doctor at Toronto Western Hospital, Sunnybrook’s burn ward and sent me on my merry way.

Over the next few weeks I spent most days in between appointments with nurses at the CCAC and taking morphine naps. When I eventually got to Western, they told me I should probably drop out of school, quit my job, and move home to my parent’s house in Newmarket. I went on a leave of absence at work and scheduled a month off school in the second half of my very last semester of my degree. It was a dark time. After a couple weeks I went to the burn ward at Sunnybrook and they gave me a much more optimistic approximation of my return to good health.

In the waiting room on my second visit to Sunnybrook I met a man who’d suffered third degree burns to the entirety of both his hands. Being the sole bread winner in his family, he was nervous about money and being able to return to his labour job. We talked about what painkillers we’d each been given and how well they worked. I still wonder how he’s doing.

The doctor at Sunnybrook determined that I had been incorrectly bandaged at TGH and my skin was beginning to heal wrong, too tightly. I was instructed to do a set of exercises multiple times a day to improve elasticity in the new skin, and was warned that I might not regain full mobility in my hand if I failed to do so. My right hand. My dominant hand. The possibility of losing function in my art-making hand was horrifying. The exercises were excruciatingly painful but I was terrified of the alternative.

After about a month, my skin was still in pretty rough shape. I still wasn’t able to bend my fingers or walk around without a bandage.

Eventually things started getting better. After a few days I was determined to make the bed all by myself. It took something like twenty minutes, but I was so proud that I was able to do it, I took a photo afterward. After a week I could brush my hair properly again. Another week later I was able to shower without a bag taped over my arm. A few more and I was getting really good at bandaging myself up so I stopped seeing the nurses at the CCAC. Eventually I was back at school and I just barely passed all my classes. I even went back to Starbucks to work, although I avoided hot liquids where possible for a long time.

Little things like making the bed become hard when you can only use one hand. 

Two years later and all that’s left is this tiny scar. It’s so much better than it used to be. I use BioOil on it to help remove the scar tissue which is sensitive to light and sometimes gets itchy. But I’m not embarrassed by it or insecure about it at all. I’m over it and I’ve accepted it as a part of me. I even kinda like it.

But what if I didn’t?

What if I was insecure about it? What if the injury was self inflicted? What if it was the product of abuse?

Well if that were the case, I’d be reliving the trauma on a nearly constant basis. You know why? People, not friends, family or acquaintances, but STRANGERS on the street, bus, and at work ask me about it all the time. I’ve been given a short reprieve during the winter months when I wear gloves, but as soon as that glove is off I have random people asking me, “What happened?” “How’d you do it?” And asking for details about why I was doing what I was doing when it happened. Some, offering unsolicited advice about what oils and creams to use on it to diminish the scar.

I never realized how often people look at an injury with curiosity and think it’s a talking point or a reason to give a stranger advice. Looking back, I can think of a few times I’ve done it myself.

I’m sure these people mean well but the thing is this: I’ll talk all day about my scars. I don’t care about how it looks or what people think about it. But some people don’t want to talk about their scars. Some people’s scars are very personal reminders of very bad, scary times. You asking them on the bus to recall the tale of how they came to get their scar is really rude. Don’t do it. It’s likely they don’t want to think about it let alone talk about it out loud with a random person.

When I friends offered their experiences with their scars getting unwanted attention, a lot of them had similar reactions. Most people didn’t want to talk about their scars:

“As a human with self-inflicted scars, I usually have them covered up. Those I can’t hide, I do my best to cover with makeup, but when people ask me about them, I answer honestly but feel shitty.”

– An anonymous friend

“I did some research years ago about scar removal. The biggest insight: people had different relationships with their scars – some were traumatic, some were happy (cancer removal, Caesarean scars), some were ‘meh, that was nothing.’ But what was common was the false permission scars seems to give people to ask about their provenance. People were tired, reluctant, and just annoyed at strangers asking them to explain how they got the scar. So, everyone, just stop it.”

– Nancy, a family friend

“After I shattered my femur I was left with a nasty five inch scar over my knee (and a few in other less visible places). Determined to feel like myself again I refused to cover it up during the summer and every time it was exposed people stared unabashedly. Many people asked about it and even more strangers felt the need to reassure me that it made me ‘cool’ and didn’t make me any less ‘attractive.’ In the end I felt like it was these unasked for interactions that made me feel less comfortable than if everyone just minded their own damn business.”

– Brittany, a friend from high school

If you find yourself wondering about someone’s scars, that’s natural. Just don’t ask.

Last-minute zero-waste gift ideas

December is already in full-swing, and between school and work, I haven’t had a second to think about Christmas shopping. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also wait until a week before the 25th to do anything about the encroaching holiday. Even though I may be a last-minute shopper, I still believe in the importance of ethical gift giving. In an effort to cut down on waste this holiday season, I’m committing to giving eco-friendly presents.

So, what does it mean to be eco-friendly in gift giving? Let’s begin with the obvious thing: wrapping. I’m sure this is a scene you’ll recognize from Christmas morning:

After sleeping in from a late Christmas Eve full of travel and reuniting with family, you wake up to a snow-dusted, sunshiny Christmas morning. Everyone rushes downstairs to open their presents and begin the festivities. Your parents, siblings or kids find a comfortable spot on the ground beside the tree to start tearing apart their gifts. One box at a time, they reveal a set of pyjamas, a pair of winter boots, shiny new electronics and more. As the morning continues, the living room becomes more and more littered with bows, ribbon and paper. Before dinner, all of it is gathered into a big plastic bag and left out with the trash for pick-up later that week…

Sound familiar? Seems like a waste, doesn’t it? That plastic and paper, having only been used for one purpose, is discarded and off to the landfill along with all the other bags of plastic and paper from your neighbours’ houses. Whoa. Maybe we should rethink this wrapping deal, eh? Here are some other great ways to wrap a gift:


  • Wrap a present in another present. Gifts like books or anything that can go in a box can be easily wrapped in a garment like a shirt or a scarf. Alternatively, you can wrap gifts in bed linens, dishcloths or plain old fabric from your crafty relatives.
  • Raid the blue bin. Nice-looking wrapping comes in all forms. Personally, I love the look of newsprint or magazine paper as wrapping paper. 
  • Use biodegradable decorations. No need for a plastic bow. To decorate gifts, why not pick a sprig of your favourite evergreen tree? Straw can make beautiful ribbon to secure a package. Birch bark is great for gift tags. 
  • Use a bag. Everyone gets a drawstring bag of presents, and each year the bags get reused. Instead of buying a new bag, up-cycle an old pillowcase!

I love these wrapping ideas most of all because they’re all free! And we all know wrapping paper can get a little pricey if you get the good stuff.

If you absolutely must use traditional gift-wrapping, please consider using recyclable paper!



I like this chart cause it puts buying at bottom priority. Truly, the best gifts I have ever received have been things up at the top of the pyramid. For example, I absolutely love going to concerts. It’s my raison d’être. Often these days, you can buy concert tickets without even printing a single piece of paper. That would fall into the “give memories” rung. Bonus: get two tickets and go together!

You don’t need to hit the mall for a great gift.

One of the ways my family stays zero-waste for the holidays is by giving the gift of food. Everyone’s gotta eat, right? Giving the gift of food and other consumables is a great way to go waste-free, plus you probably should leave it until the very last second to keep things fresh, or if you’re prone to procrastination like me. Going to farmers’ markets and bakeries can be helpful when eliminating waste because often their products are unpackaged. Bring a reusable grocery bag, and you’re good to go! 

But if you have a day to spare, get to baking! There’s nothing better than baked goods on holidays. It’s the one time of year that calories don’t matter. My favourite baked present is bread: the gift that keeps giving! Since I was a teen, a loaf of bread was at the top of my wish-list (my aunt had a bread maker and knew her way around the kitchen). Bread is great because it can last for days, if not weeks, when stored properly.

If you don’t want to bake, another idea I love is cookie-mix-in-a-jar (some assembly required). Another great consumable which requires very minimal effort (but a little more time) is gut-healthy fermented food (like kimchi or kombucha). Again, some assembly required, but fermentation is a mostly passive process. Be sure to check out my post on how to make kombucha.

I love the idea of giving the gift of a membership. Things like subscriptions to Netflix, Apple music, Spotify, yoga lessons, a gym membership, massages or even a Costco card all make amazing gifts and are generally shareable and affordable! I could personally use all of the above, if any of my loved ones are reading, wink-wink

Other ideas for consumable gifts: 


This is when things get a little tricky, and I would recommend against these gifts when trying to adhere to zero-waste gifting. The best way to stay zero-waste when gifting non-consumables is by ensuring landfill diversion

If you want to get your loved one an article of clothing, for example, getting a second-hand piece is best. Check you local thrift store before you head to the mall. The great thing about thrifted clothing, is that you’re more likely to find something unique. Plus, you’re bound to save money since most second-hand stores sell clothing at a discount compared to mall prices.

If you want something brand new, try giving something that encourages environmentally friendly habits, like: