October 7, 2019 update: I’ve updated this post at the bottom with a link to the latest limited edition version of the product.
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(*).
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
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 agent. 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.
The 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.
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.
Luckily(?), 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!
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 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.
It’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.
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 5/5 (rating updated after long consideration, to reflect multiple repurchases and eagerness to keep using the product after all this time)
Where can I buy Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX?
Also make sure to check out my review of the First Care Activating Masks, made with all the same extracts as the serum!