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The good news: Traditional acrylics (powder and liquid) are generally considered the strongest type of artificial nails. "They're great for what I call crashers and bashers, women who do a lot of gardening or play sports," says Jan Arnold, cofounder of Creative Nail Design, a company that's been working with acrylic formulas since the seventies. (Their latest version, the Custom Blended Manicure, goes on in very thin layers and can be matched to your natural nail color.) The durability of acrylics also means that they can be sculpted beyond the nail edge, so you can get more length without gluing on a plastic tip first. Like other artificial nail options, they protect polish from your nails' natural oils, so it will last up to three weeks, says manicurist Bernadette Thompson.

The bad news: Acrylics have become more refined since they were first introduced, but they can look thicker and more obviously fake than other nail overlays if not applied in thin coats. Acrylics need to be soaked in an acetone-based solution for about 45 minutes before they can be safely removed.

Our tester says: "The whole process took an hour and a half. I found the acrylic smell wretched, but I loved how perfect my nails were afterward. They felt a bit strange, though—like an added pressure on my own nails; not painful, but they took a little getting used to. And because they're thicker than real nails, even though I kept them short, sometimes it was tricky to pick up a piece of paper or open my mail. After a week and a half, my nails had grown enough that I needed to go back to have the space between my cuticles and the fake nails filled in."

Average cost: (according to an annual survey by the industry trade publication Nails Magazine): $46 for a full set; $28 for fill-ins (these averages hold for most artificial nail services).

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