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Why more health and beauty brands want your DNA

A growing number of brands want consumers to hand over their DNA so they can tailor their nutrition and skincare products to our specific needs.

Launched in June 2021, Know Beauty was cofounded by Vanessa Hudgens and offers skincare products and routines that are personalized based on consumers' DNA.
BIOTECH FOR THE MASSES

The first step in most beauty routines is cleanser. For Know Beauty, Vanessa Hudgens’ new skincare brand, it’s a cheek swab.

The brand launched last summer with a novel proposal for a celebrity-founded brand: it would test your DNA in order to recommend a personalized line-up of products. It’s a step beyond the questionnaires other brands use to make product recommendations, and the brand says the results of the $95 DNA test can help people understand what kind of skin issues they are most prone to developing. So far, the brand says 50,000 people have taken its test.

Know Beauty is not the only company exploring how DNA and other intimate data collected from the human body could be used to sell products. Last year Bio-Synergy, a sports nutrition brand that has been around since 1997, launched its own range of DNA tests. As well as providing customers with health insights, the brand also recommends supplements based on the results. Nutri-Genetix, which sells DNA-personalized meal replacement shakes, is reportedly eyeing a U.S. launch, while DNAfit, which was acquired for $10 million in 2018 by Hong Kong-based genetic testing company Prenetics, offers personalized training plans and cookbooks based on DNA results.

In the skincare space, Skintelli, a brand launched by biotech company EpigenCare, uses epigenetic testing (which measures how your DNA responds to environmental stimuli) to recommend products from other brands. Singaporean brand Anake has partnered with Australian DNA testing firm SkinDNA, to give customers detailed reports on their skin’s characteristics and make product recommendations.

These brands follow in the footsteps of 23andMe and Ancestry, two companies that kicked off the idea of at-home DNA testing, but which have since struggled to keep people interested in finding out about their family background. The hope is that by marrying personal health information with product recommendations, they can keep people coming back for more.

Should I buy this? Let your DNA decide

At-home cheek swabs and even stool and urine samples are nothing new — many of us, after all, will have been sent away from our doctors’ office with some form of testing kit.

But the idea of putting this information to use to recommend products is a novelty. Speaking to WWD, Dr. Anna Gold, a doctor of East Asian medicine, explains that “these companies have realized that by employing a couple of scientists or MDs on their staff, they can produce algorithms and use data to really succinctly target people with their products.”

Some brands have also identified a strong business case for adding DNA testing to their product ranges. For Bio-Synergy, it was about making sure the brand could retain its position as a first-mover in the sports nutrition space. “When I started in 1997, I could count on my hands and feet how many sports nutrition brands there are,” says founder Daniel Herman. “And now there’s a new one starting every day. And I’d say the majority are not doing anything new or groundbreaking.”

He says that since launching, the brand has used a questionnaire to recommend products to customers — “but ultimately, [questionnaires are] clunky and you’re not getting under the skin of the individual.”

He began developing the DNA testing product in early 2020, and launched two kits in May 2021. The decision to launch two kits is a canny move: Bio-Synergy now sells a DNA test that provides a one-off sales opportunity (DNA is fixed, so the results won’t change if you take the test again), while its epigenetics test, which can tell customers how fast they are aging, and what they can do to slow it down, provides opportunity for repeat sales.

Brands are also using DNA tests to build trust, or even identify new products to add into a brand’s roadmap. In 2019, supplements company Elysium Health launched an epigenetic test that uses saliva samples to calculate biological age. The idea is that the tests can help customers tell if Elysium’s other product — Basis, a pill the company says can prolong life — is actually working.

Bio-Synergy sometimes finds itself in the position where it has to recommend people stop buying certain products from its range, based on the test results. “I would much rather sell somebody a Vitamin D supplement I’m making a tiny magin on, than something with a great margin that’s not actually benefiting them,” Herman says. The tests have also shown what’s missing from Bio-Synergy’s range: selenium, for example, is a supplement the brand doesn’t sell but which it finds itself recommending often, based on test results.

The genome versus the microbiome

While a DNA test such as Bio-Synergy’s can give you information on all sorts of things about your health, such as your likelihood to succumb to flu or your own personal caffeine sensitivity level, there are limitations to what our own DNA can tell us.

Some companies argue that a better way of getting these insights on how our body works and what it responds well to is to take a step back and analyze the microbes that live in our body and interact with our genes.

Trillions of these microbes live in and on our bodies, and their presence and activity is greatly influenced by our DNA. “If you pick two random people, their human genomes are going to be 99% identical, but their gut microbiome is going to be completely different,” says Momchilo Vuyisich, the cofounder and chief science officer at Viome, a company which sells microbiome tests.

Atlas Biomed sells both a DNA and a microbiome testing kit. It encourages customers to take both tests in order to get as full a picture as possible of their health. Like the DNA testing companies, Viome and Atlas’ microbiome tests can tell you which foods you should avoid, and provide information on cellular health and biological age

Is all this information useful?

The idea of unlocking our personal genetic information in order to understand how to prevent disease is a compelling one. But for the average consumer — who is typically not an expert on genomics — being presented with this much information can be overwhelming.

This scenario means they have to put a lot of trust in brands to interpret their data properly, all while knowing they are using this information to sell products to them.

Consumers also have to weigh up whether or not it’s worth giving a brand access to your most intimate data in exchange for a product. Vinome, a brand that used DNA testing to recommend wines you might like, closed down in 2020 after scientists questioned whether there was really anything solid behind the brand’s proposition. In January of last year, Ancestry announced that it was pulling its health DNA tests, one year after launching them, saying there was not enough consumer interest.

Data privacy advocates have also voiced concerns about how these companies can potentially use — or sell — customer data. In November, 23andMe announced that it would use insights from customer DNA samples to develop its own drugs.

While some people are rightly fascinated to learn more about the minute details of their personal health profile, whether through DNA testing or any of the other at-home testing brands out there, my own foray in this space felt fairly futile. In December 2020, I paid £71 ($92) for a direct-to-consumer blood testing brand only to learn that I was low on vitamin D. If only I had looked out the window and reminded myself I was living in gloomy London, I could have saved myself the money.