UPDATED Review: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX

May 5, 2017 update: I’ve updated this post at the bottom with images and links to the newly released 20th Anniversary Limited Edition packaging for this product.

Woohoo! Sulwhasoo!

I’ve spent several years steeped in the serums and essences of Korean skincare but have until recently given well known, high-end brands like Sulwhasoo a wide berth.

I avoided the grandes dames of K-beauty partly for budgetary reasons and partly because I doubted that any difference in quality and effectiveness could be proportional to the difference in price between the fancy stuff and solid midrange beauty brands. But then I got interested in hanbang skincare thanks to my snailboo (and fellow Snailcaster) Snow of Snow White and the Asian Pear. Since then, I’ve purchased several full-sized Sulwhasoo products. Now, after a month of use, I’m ready to review one of the ones I was most excited to get. (Update: after over a year and several more bottles of this product, I stand by everything I originally said here.)  Let’s talk about Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX!


Affiliate links in this post are marked with an asterisk(*).


Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX review

Just out of frame: Two curious children and one very large dog lunging at me against its leash. There are severe hazards to doing product photography in public spaces.

Purpose: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX is an anti-aging product that claims to hydrate, balance, and revitalize skin.

Best suited for: All skin types.

Do not use if: You are sensitive to botanical extracts, alcohol, honey, carrageenan, or anything else in the ingredients list.

When and how to use: Pat onto skin immediately after cleansing (or after actives if/when you use those). If you want to feel extra fancy and ladylike while doing so, which I personally do because I want to milk every last drop of raw experience out of the product, check out this Sulwhasoo video for the brand’s recommended application technique.

I don’t particularly believe the patting influences effectiveness, but it feels good, and I like feeling good. Someday I’m going to buy me a pretty floaty dressing gown and a ladylike vanity to complete the experience.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX ingredients:  Ophiopogon japonicus root extract, water, glycyrrhiza uralensis (licorice) root extract, butylene glycol, alcohol, betaine, glycerin, camellia sinensis leaf extract, paeonia albiflora root extract, nelumbo nucifera flower extract, polygonatum officinale rhizome root extract, lilium candidum bulb extract, rehmannia glutinosa root extract, honey, juglans regia (walnut) seed extract, portulaca oleracea extract, zizyphus jujuba fruit extract, biosaccharide gum-1, natto gum, PEG/PPG-17/6 copolymer, glyceryl polymethacrylate, Bis-PEG-18 methyl ether dimethyl silane, carbomer, PEG-60 hydrogenated castor oil, dextrin, theobroma cacao (cocoa) extract, xanthan gum, ethylhexylglycerin, chondrus crispus (carrageenan), phenyl trimethicone, hydrogenated lecithin, propylene glycol, tromethamine, disodium EDTA, phenoxyethanol, fragrance

CosDNA analysis

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX English ingredients

Tinytext thoughtfully provided in the packaging insert.

Notable ingredients: Of the first five ingredients listed, two are plant extracts. The top is ophiopogon japonicus, which is used extensively in Chinese and Korean herbal medicine for various internal ailments. Topically, its key benefit is moisturization. Glycyrrhiza uralensis, a strain of licorice that I don’t recall seeing anywhere except in Sulwhasoo products, is known primarily as a brightening and anti-inflammatory ingredient and an emollient skin conditioning Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX Fifty Shades of Snail reviewagent. Both of these extracts and the rest of the herbal ingredients (said to have various brightening, anti-aging, and skin conditioning benefits) can also be presumed to have some level of antioxidant benefit.

There’s no way to reliably know just how concentrated any of those ingredients are, but on paper, the combination is promising. And my bleary tinytext-decoding eyes turned to heart eyes when I noticed the honey right around the middle of the list. Honey’s soothing, moisturizing abilities are always welcome on my face.

You may also notice alcohol rather high up on the list. While I’m no alcohol avoider (in life or skincare), I do recognize that some people will need to pass on this due to individual sensitivities.

If you don’t have a known sensitivity, however, I suggest keeping an open mind. There are several cosmetically valid reasons for alcohol to appear in this product. It’s a solvent, for one thing, and with the number of different extracts used in this product, I’m thinking the chances are high that at least one of them is a substance that has to be extracted in alcohol. Alcohol can also be an effective penetration enhancer. The First Care Activating Serum EX is touted as optimizing the absorption of products layered over it, so its presence here makes sense.

Performance

Asian skincare routineThe typical recommended order for applying products in a multilayered K-beauty-style skincare routine is from thinnest to thickest. For example, watery toner, then slightly thicker essence or hydrator, followed by even thicker serums and ampoules, all capped off with emulsion or cream. Sulwhasoo’s First Care Activating Serum EX throws an aromatic wrench into the works by being the consistency of a serum yet recommended for use as the first step after cleansing.

After about a week of experimentation, I settled on the time-tested strategy of Do What I Want. Sometimes I use the First Care Activating Serum EX in place of toner. If I feel like my skin has a bit too much residue from my actives, I do a sweep of toner on a cotton pad first. And if my skin’s being extra thirsty, I’ll do the First Care Activating Serum EX first then pat on some hydrating or moisturizing toner afterwards. Really, it all feels good and I’ve not noticed any issues with any of these methods.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX is an amber gel with a fairly lightweight serum consistency and a sophisticated, spicy, very Sulwhasoo herbal scent.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum consistency

No way around the truth: this is a sexy, sexy substance.

It spreads out smoothly even in very sparing quantities (I usually do just a single pump for face and neck) and dries down remarkably quickly, thanks both to the alcohol and the general lightness of the product. Much like Dear by Enprani Moistfull Booskin, my other go-to “make stuff absorb faster” prep product, the First Care Activating Serum EX does make my subsequent skincare layers pat in faster and seemingly more thoroughly.

Thing is, there are a lot of products out there that smell lovely and feel pleasant, and there are also plenty of effective absorption boosters. Absorption boosting is 75% the point of any hydrating toner and about 55% the point of any first essence. For the first couple of weeks that I used the First Care Activating Serum EX, I wasn’t sure whether it was having any effect beyond those basic functions, and if it didn’t have any other effect, it certainly wouldn’t be worth it.

Korean beauty skincare routineLuckily(?), after a couple of weeks of consistent twice-daily use, I did begin to notice some more interesting effects. I kept on doing what I was doing while I observed. Then I put the product through some different tests that each lasted a few days. I cut my routine down to the bare bones (and the First Care Activating Serum EX); used it as part of a normal routine, but only on one side of my face; and cut it out of my routine completely while continuing with all my other products, then added it back in later on. With a complex routine that contains some strong actives, it’s essential for me to double- and triple-check that any effects I think I’m seeing from one product really are coming from that product and not from the cumulative effects of my routine or from something else in it. All the extra testing lets me be more confident in attributing any particular effects to a single product.

Anytime I took the product out of my routine, after a day or so, I’d lose the effects I suspected it of causing, and those effects would return not long after I started using it again. Skincare is like exercise. If you stop doing something that’s working for you, your condition backslides fairly quickly, but (at least in my experience) when you get back on the elliptical (which I never do, but let’s pretend for the sake of the metaphor), you can bounce back quite quickly.

What my skin gained from the First Care Activating Serum EX (and then lost when I cut it from my routine, and then regained when I welcomed the product back into my life) was a youthful radiance that I don’t think I’ve had since I was seventeen.

Let’s break it down a little bit. As we age, our skin isn’t just losing firmness, elasticity, and evenness of tone. Many of us also experience a gradual dulling of our skin over time. This started to happen quite early for me because I started smoking at seventeen. Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning that it causes blood vessels to narrow. Smokers and former smokers like me generally lack a natural bloom to our faces in part because the blood circulation right beneath the skin is reduced. I’ve since quit smoking (YAY FOR ME!) but I do still get my nicotine fix by vaping. For that reason, I’m generally just not a rosy-cheeked person. Even when I feel good enough about my skin to go without BB cream or cushion, I’ve always felt compelled to use at least a touch of blush to avoid that DOA look.

The First Care Activating Serum EX puts some rosy color in my cheeks, perhaps due to some of the extracts in the product stimulating increased circulation in my skin. After a couple of weeks of using the First Care Activating Serum EX, I found myself happily going blush-free without looking like a fresh-ish corpse. That is a huge deal in my world and well worth the investment I put into the product!

But.

Due to the high price tag of the Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX, I’m not at all comfortable ending my review here and moving on to the conclusion. It’s definitely an investment. For this and the other high-end products I’ve got in my review queue, I want to take some time to discuss whether this investment is something that will be worth it to you.

Sulwhasoo’s products are worth it for me at this point in my life, but I remember my lean times, too.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX Value Analysis

Figuring out the value of a skincare product might seem simple at first glance. If the product has “quality” ingredients, then that justifies (or at least explains) the higher price point, right? And ingredients do come in varying degrees of purity and potency. One supplier’s ophiopogon japonicus extract might be standardized at a higher concentration than another supplier’s, even though the name is the same on the label the consumer sees. Unfortunately, there’s no way for us to tell whether a brand is using the really good stuff just by looking at the ingredients list. We’d need insider information, obtainable probably only through blackmail or other unsavory activities, on the suppliers brands use. That limits our ability to judge purely by “quality” or “formulation.” But we do still have eyes and brains (well, arguably) and can judge by results instead!

In skincare as in everything else, there are primary concerns and secondary concerns. I made an exercise metaphor up above and I’ll extend it here: a primary concern might be reducing BMI to a healthy level, improving cardiovascular function to prevent or reduce heart problems, or building bone mass to ward off osteoporosis. I should really start working out. But anyway, with skincare, primary concerns might be protecting skin from UV damage, treating acne, or using proven actives to rebuild collagen.

Secondary concerns, on the other hand, are those finer details that optimize. If I exercised ever, for example, I might address the secondary concern of my booty shape by spending some extra time doing squats and lunges. The squats and lunges will have an impact on my primary concerns as well, just as the antioxidants and slower-acting actives in any skincare product may have a subtle long-term preventative effect on primary skin concerns, but in both cases, the primary concerns aren’t the point.

With my skin, my general lack of blooming glow is a secondary concern. Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX is fantastically effective for me at addressing that secondary concern. If you struggle with a general sallowness or the grayish IRL filter caused by long-term nicotine addiction, and if your lack of bloom bothers you a lot, this product may indeed be totally worth the investment for you. If circulatory effects like this aren’t what you’re looking for, however, you run a higher risk of disappointment. Whatever preventative effects you may receive from the antioxidants in the product probably won’t be enough to justify the cost.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum testIt’s not all about the effects, either. I also look more closely at a big-ticket item’s packaging design and performance than I would if it were less costly. With luxury skincare, I expect every detail of the product’s container to be well thought out. It’s not just about looking pretty or feeling nice in my hand (which the First Care Activating Serum EX bottle does!), either. It’s about being made of quality material that I won’t destroy if I accidentally drop the bottle, being capable of dispensing the product cleanly and precisely to avoid waste, and being made to protect the effectiveness of the product for as long as possible.

The packaging of the First Care Activating Serum EX meets my requirements completely. While the bottle doesn’t appear to be of the gold standard airless pump variety, it is opaque, which prevents antioxidant degradation due to light exposure, and despite its graceful silhouette, the glass(?) is thick and sturdy. I’ve dropped it a few times onto a tile floor (sometimes intentionally!). No breakage, not even a chip as far as I can see.

The weighty material may also help insulate the product so that high environmental temperatures won’t affect it as they might affect a product in a flimsier container. The pump dispenses a perfect amount of product for me with one press and shows no signs of wearing out or breaking down after extended use. And the cap clicks on just as crisply and tightly as it did when I first started using the product. Also, yes, the whole thing is pretty, classy, and very satisfying to touch and use.

Finally, when looking at a luxury product, I also consider whether I know of any comparable products at lower price points. When it comes to the First Care Activating Serum EX, I can’t think of any that produce the same blooming glow at a lower cost. The closest product I’ve tried has been Holy Snails‘s Snow Shark, a superlightweight hanbang concoction that actually made my skin softer than the First Care Activating Serum EX, but a) Snow Shark is not commercially available, as it is prohibitively difficult and costly for Chel to make; and b) though Snow Shark made my skin softer, Sulwhasoo’s First Care Activating Serum EX wins by far for giving me That Glow.

What to expect from Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX: Instantly softer skin that’s prepared to absorb subsequent products more readily; subtle brightening; improved color in skin–a healthy glow.

Conclusion

I’m super happy with Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX and, despite having only tried a single sample foil of it before purchasing the full size, I don’t have a single regret about plopping down the cash I plopped down in order to acquire my bottle. As cliched as it sounds, youthful radiance really is a thing, and this stuff has given it to my face in a way I didn’t expect.

With that being said, it isn’t an all-around miracle worker that will erase wrinkles and tighten up your face like a good dose of Photoshop. Then again, nothing I’ve seen can, except for a good dose of Photoshop! When my bottle runs out (which will take several months thanks to the generous 60ml provided), the chances of me buying another are very, very high.

Rating: 4.2/5  4.6/5 (rating updated after long consideration, to reflect multiple repurchases and eagerness to keep using the product after all this time)

Rating scale:

1 – This should be taken off the market, or this failed at its one primary job.
2 – Caused me some problems or doesn’t work very well; would not buy again.
3 – Meh. Neither great nor bad.
4 – Pretty good. Would buy again unless I find something better.
5 – I’ll never be in the market for a replacement unless this one is discontinued.

Where can I buy Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX?

Authentic 60ml bottles of Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX are available at Sulwhasoo US*. If you’re considering shopping at Sulwhasoo US, make sure to check out their Mother’s Day offers* while you’re there. Also make sure to check the special offers section in my sidebar for my code to receive extra gifts with your purchase (mobile users, scroll down to the bottom of the page).

Sulwhasoo US now also carries the new, jumbo-sized (120 ml), magnificently beautiful 20th anniversary limited edition bottle of First Care Activating Serum EX–you can learn about the release and special gift with purchase here* or check it out on Sulwhasoo US here*! The ingredients in the serum are exactly the same. Sulwhasoo US was kind enough to send me one of the LE bottles, so you can have a closer look at it below.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX 20th Anniversary packaging

It’s shiny and ornate and feels wonderful in my hand.

The gold detailing is stunning.

Also make sure to check out my review of the First Care Activating Masks, made with all the same extracts as the serum!

 

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35 responses to “UPDATED Review: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX

  1. Ohh so pleased you had such great results! I’ve been using this serum for quite a while now, and whilst I can’t see any really obvious results I do have a general feeling of healthy skin after applying, and I love it as a prep. I absolutely adore the product as a whole though (the scent YES), and despite being largely preventative results for me, I think I’ll continue repurchasing.

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      • Surprisingly I think you actually got it cheaper than me! I paid 90,000 if I remember right, which works out about $80, buying it in the department store. For that I guess I also got the customer service plus a big luxury sample set of the whole line.

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  2. This review was so much fun to read! I loved your exercise metaphor, which is how I’ve started thinking about skincare. For example, when people ask if they need to keep using their products after achieving their goals, I think about it this way: if you want to lose a bunch of weight and get in shape, and then after meeting your goal, you stop exercising and eat pizza and french fries every day, you’re going to regain the weight rather quickly and find yourself out of shape.

    Anyway, I can understand the challenge of reviewing high-end products, since you don’t want to give a glowing (pun intended) review of a product that is going to set someone back in the $60-$80 range (speaking of, why would one purchase this from W2Beauty give the outrageous price point?!), have people purchase this product based on your review, and then complain that it’s not doing enough for them. I think you struck a good balance of emphasizing the YMMV point.

    For me, I’ve noticed that my skin does better when I use fewer products, but it helps if those products are of higher quality. Or at least, this is how I justify purchasing products of higher price points. 😉 I’ll put this serum on my radar for when a testing spot opens up in 2018 (based on all the stuff I have to work through first)! I’ve tried the Sulwhasoo Snowise Ex Foaming Cleanser and Exfoliating Gel, and the Sulwhasoo Brightening Cushion is my go-to cushion, so I definitely have a positive view of the brand. As I edge closer to 40 than 30, I think my Tony Moly and Etude House days are mostly behind me, alas, and I need to bring out the big guns.

    (Also, exercise isn’t that bad if you find something you like doing. For me, it’s a super cheesy aerobics class, but it gets me moving, and it’s fun, so I’ll take it any day over a boring elliptical or treadmill. Yuck.)

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    • Hi Jennifer!! Thanks for the nice words. I really struggled with balancing this review, for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

      What do you think about the Sulwhasoo Snowise EX White Ginseng Exfoliating Gel–is that the one you tried? I’ve been working my way through a ton of samples of it and I have to say I don’t feel the love there :\ Also. Have you tried the Snowise EX Whitening Serum? I’ve got that one on the way to try next.

      Tooootally agree about one’s Tony Moly and EH days being over. I’ll use the masks still sometimes, but as for daily use skincare, no way. I need something more serious!

      And my massage therapist yesterday was teaching me a few yoga poses to help with my sciatica and got me really interested in going over to the same spa for their yoga classes. Maybe that’ll end up being my thing! I do like hiking a lot, except for the extra sunscreen investment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Fiddy,
    I’m trying the samples and I am already half-in to purchase the full size.
    Anything for some radiance! Great post! I love positive news!
    Gail

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  4. I’ve used the serum on and off, and I do like the effect that a pre-serum booster gives me. (Shiseido’s Ultimune is also supposed to be a booster, though they don’t really advertise it that way except in the little paper insert.) But it is pricey, and the fact that alcohol is the fifth ingredient listed gives me some pause. I recently broke down and finally purchased SkinCeutical’s C E Ferulic (albeit on sale, but it retails for $150+) after so many editors raved about it.

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      • I like it a lot, except that each item you order from the free shipping page is its own order. You can’t add them to your cart and purchase them as a group. Each item is then shipped separately. Which is… not that bad, since I’m not paying for shipping? And now I have all the boxes with heart-trees on them that I could ever want.

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    • Not really, as long as the samples have expiration date printed on them, which I understand Sulwhasoo samples do! I personally prefer to get the full experience of the product, including packaging design etc., especially when reviewing, but it’s very smart to do the bulk sample thing where it can save you money. Snow was actually talking about a product she does that with (Whoo ginseng oil, I think) when we last recorded the Snailcast. Even better if you have a good container to decant the samples into for convenience IMO!

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  5. SK II ensnared me with its yeasty glory and now I can’t believe how much I will pay to keep it in my life. The crazy thing is that it wasn’t even results that pulled me in at first. The scent and the way it feels to put in on we’re really the two biggies. After a bit I started to notice how my skin felt after application, and when I added ljh propolis to the mix the radiance was amazing. But oh, I could buy so much skintertainment & sheet masks for the price:(

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  6. How would you compare the glow from this to the glow you get from the LJH? I have samples of it but haven’t used it yet. I have been using the LJH off and on though as part of my skincare wardrobe, and it does give me a really nice subtle radiance. I am very pale and have a lot of pallor/sallowness to my complexion though, and do need some more rosiness so I don’t look sick lol.

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  7. Thank you for this review! My imo always sends me Sulwhasoo products but until recently I’d never really paid much attention to Korean skincare products. Now that I’m about to turn 30 I’m suddenly very, VERY concerned with skincare–particularly since I’m only half Korean and I’ve now noticed that many American brands actually harm my skin more than helping with lots of harsh chemicals and toners/astringents that focus on drying skin out instead of hydrating skin. Learning about skincare and taking time to thoroughly cleanse every morning and evening as well as investing in some more expensive products in combination with lesser but equally effective products has saved me money and really made me more comfortable without make-up, and your wonderful review explaining not just how it worked for you but the ingredients (including discussing your thoughts on it containing alcohol!) that are in this serum have me very excited to give my serum a solid month to show me some magic 🙂

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  8. Hi! Thank you for this detailed review! I hope you would still be able to see my question!

    What I’m wondering is, on Sulwhasoo website, it specifies using it immediately after cleansing, but the product itself is labelled as serum, which completely throws me off.

    Could I know what are your views on this? If I used it as a serum after toner+essence, will it be fine?

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  9. Hi! I’m wondering about how to incorporate this into my routine! Currently, I do: cleanse (splash with water in am or CIZ + CeraVe Foaming in pm), actives (BHA am, AHA pm), Cosrx 95, Hada Labo, the occasional sheetmask, Cosrx 93 AIO & final steps (sunscreen in am, occasional sleeping pack in PM).

    Would this go before or after Cosrx 95?

    Thanks in advance!

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  10. Hi just wondering if this is the same as the NON-EX version? Are the ingredients the same for the NON-EX version as well as the EX version?

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  11. Hi! Thanks for this great review! I am trying to decide between the Sulwhasoo First Care serum or HIstory of Whoo’s Soon Hwan Essence as my first step after cleansing. Not sure if you have tried the Whoo Soon Hwan Essence or know anything about it? I also use Skinceuticals C&E– and am wondering if I would apply that before or after the Korean serum?

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  12. It’s so pleasing that the geometric patterns on the curtains in that ad match the ones on the bottle!

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  13. Late comment but I just noticed you said “If I feel like my skin has a bit too much residue from my actives, I do a sweep of toner on a cotton pad first.”
    The skin on/around my eyes is really sensitive to products so I apply actives carefully and let them sink in but I wonder if the remaining residue mixes in with other products layered on top & causes irritation. So using toner could potentially fix that!
    I use a few different actives (mostly AHAs rn) and I’ve noticed they can sometimes leave a sticky residue. I’m assuming with 10+ minutes to sink in, removing the residue with toner doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of the actives?

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