Before we get started comparing acrylic nails, gel nails and silk wraps, please keep in mind that all artificial nails should be applied by a competent professional with a safe, well-ventilated studio.
Acrylic Nails - Acrylic nails are created by adding a plastic overlay or lengthening tip on top of your natural nail, then building on top with soft acrylic gel that hardens to nearly indestructible plastic. These plastic overlays are filed heavily, buffed and polished in whatever finish you choose.
Acrylics are not known for their natural look, and require filling and maintenance every 2-3 weeks (depending on how quickly your natural nails grow). The nail technician will “fill” the nail where your natural one has grown, and clean up the existing polish or finish.
Acrylic nails are inexpensive and durable, which can be a plus when you're putting your hands through a lot of daily wear and tear.
Acrylics are also the best choice for fun and complex nail designs, airbrushing or embellished nails - acrylic will hold paint, jewels, glitter or other decorations well.
UV Gel Nails - UV gel nails use another form of acrylic polymer that hardens with UV light or a spray to harden the plastic. The application is nearly the same, though you will benefit from fewer odors and chemicals.
UV gel nails are not as durable as traditional acrylics, but have a much more natural look than regular acrylic nails. You can wear these unpolished or with a French manicure style while maintaining some of the acrylic strength and longevity.
Silk Wraps - With silk wraps, individual strips of silk or fiberglass are cut to match your nail shape and applied onto a resin. This resin is sprayed to “activate” and dry, and your nails can then be filed and polished.
Silk wraps look the most natural and are great option if you want to grow your natural nails, with a little bit of strengthening. Because these are the least damaging and the most natural looking, they often cost more than gels or acrylics.
Artificial Nail Maintenance
All artificial nails require maintenance every 2-3 weeks.
If you are interested in artificial nails for a special occasion, be aware that you'll need to go back to the salon to remove them, or soak your hands in acetone at home, (usually for at least 30 minutes) followed by a lot of gunky, unpleasant picking, scraping and filing as the coatings dissolve.
You can seriously damage your own nails in the process, so talk to your manicurist ahead of time and make a plan to have the artificial nails removed.