Core-shell silver nanoparticles (NPs) consisting of an inner Ag core and successive layers of Au and Ag (Ag@Au@Ag) were used to measure the simultaneous association of Ag NPs and ionic Ag by the green alga Chlamydomonas (C.) reinhardtii. Dissolution of the inner Ag core was prevented by a gold (Au) layer, while the outer Ag layer was free to dissolve. In short term experiments, we exposed C. reinhardtii to a range of environmentally realistic Ag concentrations added as AgNO3 or as NPs. Results provide three lines of evidence for the greater cell-association of NPs compared to dissolved Ag over the concentration range tested, assuming that cell-association comprises both uptake and adsorption. First, the cell-association rate constants (kuw) for total Ag (AgNP+D), NPs (AgNP) and AuNP were similar and 2.2-fold higher than the one from AgD exposure, suggesting predominant association of the particles over the dissolved form. Second, model calculations based upon Ag fluxes suggested that only 6-33% of algal burden was from AgD. Thirdly, the significantly lower AgNP/Au ratio measured with the algae after exposure (2.1 ± 0.1) compared to the AgNP/Au ratio of the NPs in the media (2.47 ± 0.05) suggests cell-association of NPs depleted in Ag. Core-shell NPs provide an innovative tool to understand NP behavior and to directly delineate Ag accumulation from ion and NPs in aquatic systems.