Review: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum Ex

This review will be a slight departure from my normal reviews in that I’m looking at a product from a well-known luxury Korean brand. I know it’s been mostly lower to low-mid-range products around these parts. When it comes to skincare, I’ve never put too much stock in the idea that the more you pay, the better a product is. For example, I got some samples of La Mer a year or so ago, and it was pretty much useless to me. My $10 bottle of A’pieu Pure Medic Lotion did more to moisturize my skin. I ended up giving the rest of the samples to a friend.

Still, the siren call of Sulwhasoo was just too difficult to resist.

Sulwhasoo is one of the many brands under the AmorePacific umbrella, and they incorporate into their products hanbang ingredients, or those found in traditional Korean medicine, such as ginseng and other herbal extracts. It might be easiest to just quote from their webpage to give you a sense of the brand’s philosophy:

“In Korean Herbal Medicine, it is believed that the body undergoes internal changes every seven years. At each milestone, energies within the body change. Historically at the age of 35, vital energies begin to taper and fall out of balance. As vital energies diminish in the body, the skin becomes prone to dryness, dehydration, and significantly more vulnerable to the aging process. Sulwhasoo, the first science-based Korean luxury medicinal skincare system co-developed with Kyunghee University of Oriental Medicine, blends indigenous medicinal herbs through traditional Korean methods, drawing on the ancient wisdom of the “Sang-Seng” philosophy to balance inner energies of the skin that contribute to a nourished, healthy complexion.” (

I generally don’t pay much attention to the narrative that brands put forth, and I wasn’t entirely sold on the bit about age 35 (::ahem:: which I’ll be hitting in about 2 months). In fact, I’m generally pretty skeptical of alternative medicine. Still, I’d read good things about the line, and I’m always willing to pat something into my face to see what happens. I mean, rumor has it that I do love buying crap. heh.

Sound good? Alright then, let’s get to the review!


Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum Ex

Cosdna analysis



This is the 90ml bottle, and it is beautiful, made of hefty glass. The design of the bottle is simple yet striking, and the weight of it adds to the luxuriousness of using it. This is a bottle meant to sit out on a vanity.


The Claims:

“The first of boosting serums, Sulwhasoo’s signature First Care Activating Serum EX has been improved to better optimize the results of your skincare regimen for youthful, resilient skin. Now, discover the power of holistic skincare that merges ancient herbal wisdom with the advancements of modern science. Milkvetch promotes natural skin circulation, Dwarf Lilyturf and Licorice boost synergy among herbal extracts to restore skin’s healthy radiance, [and the serum] replenishes essential moisture and nutrients” (

Basically, this serum is used first after cleansing and any actives you might use. It is meant to give your skin a glow and radiance via promoting healthy blood flow and providing moisture. The serum also helps every other product that comes after it to absorb faster.


Let’s look at the ingredients:

Ophiopogon Japonicus Root Extract, Glycyrrhiza Uralensis (Licorice) Root Extract, Water, Butylene Glycol, Alcohol, Glycerin, Betaine, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Paeonia Albiflora Root Extract, Nelumbo Nucifera Seed Extract, Polygonatum Officinale Rhizome/Root Extract, Lilium Tigrinum Flower/Leaf/Stem Extract, Rehmannia Glutinosa Root Extract, Chrysanthemum Morifolium Flower Extract, Paeonia Suffruticosa Root Extract, Citrus Unshiu Peel Extract, Adenophora Stricta Root Extract, Lycium Chinense Root Extract, Coix Lacryma-Jobi Ma-Yuen Seed Extract, Angelica Tenuissima Root Extract, Honey, Astragalus Membranaceus Root Extract, Biosaccharide Gum-1, Natto Gum, Beta-Glucan, Sodium Hyaluronate, Juglans Regia (Walnut) Shell Extract, Portulaca Oleracea Extract, Zizyphus Jujuba Fruit Extract, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Extract, Peg/Ppg-17/6 Copolymer, Glyceryl Polymethacrylate, Bis-Peg-18 Methyl Ether Dimethyl Silane, Potassium Carbomer, Peg-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Dextrin, Cellulose Gum, Ethylhexylglycerin, Chondrus Crispus (Carrageenan), Phenyl Trimethicone, Propanediol, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Propylene Glycol, Disodium Edta, Phenoxyethanol, Fragrance

  • Ophiopogon Japonicus Root Extract: humectant that is also rich in saccarides to help hydrate the skin; it also helps refine skin’s texture
  • Licorice root extract: Has skin-soothing properties. It also may be effective in evening skin tone. It is ideal for sensitive or red/irritated skin.
  • Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract: Contains antioxidants and is soothing to the skin.
  • Paeonia Albiflora Root Extract: Peony extract, used as a skin brightener.
  • Honey: An antioxidant that that contains amino acids and peptides; is a wonderful product for soothing and healing skin.
  • Astragalus Membranaceus Root Extract: Otherwise known as milk vetch, this extract is an antioxidant that is said to improve blood flow. (It is difficult to find studies to back up that second claim.)
  • Sodium Hyaluronate: a powerful humectant that draws and holds water to the skin. Can hold up to 1,000 times its weigh in water.

There are a million other plant extracts in the ingredients; I won’t go through them all here.

You may have noticed that alcohol is quite high up on the list. It’s meant to help the serum absorb quickly. However, given my skin’s dislike of most products containing a lot of alcohol, I was wary.  In part, that’s why I purchased this in sample form first. And truly, if you are sensitive to alcohol at all and still want to try this serum, please get a sample first.


The (Personal) Evidence

As you know if you read the blog regularly, I like a full sensory experience with my skincare products, and Sulwhasoo provides that. All of those herbal ingredients give the First Care Activating Serum Ex a very spicy, gingery smell that I love. It’s a familiar smell across their entire line. It has a beautiful rich light brown color.

In terms of texture, the serum is not as thick as the name would suggest, although it is thicker than my FTE (first treatment essence), even though I use the serum before the FTE. This is one of those times when what the brand tells you in terms of product placement trumps the rule of “thinnest to thickest.”

If being in love with a serum is wrong, well then, I don’t want to be right.

When I first pulled out my small sample of this back in Mid-March, I was fairly certain that I wasn’t going to be impressed. Cue my “first impressions” a few weeks later on Instagram:

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 10.45.45 AM

Sigh. I hate it when luxury products actually work.

And those initial impressions have remained consistent these past few months: my skin has been more even, and I have a glow that I associate with being healthy–like I’m working out all of the time. haha. It’s like the natural version of the radiance everyone is trying to achieve with highlighters. The alcohol does not bother or dry out my skin like I feared it might. In this formulation, it works for me.

One of the biggest things I wanted to change about my skin–in addition to helping my skin stay clear–is to reduce the dullness. While just starting an Asian beauty skincare routine helped with that, the Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum Ex took it to the next level. I think it helped both because of its ingredients and because it amplified the effects of my later products by allowing them to absorb better. Specifically, since I’ve put this in combo with my Naruko Miracle Treament Essence, which I’ve been using for a couple of weeks now, my skin has been especially brighter.

To test and make sure it was the serum, I did stop using it for a week to see what would happen. Sure enough, my skin did look more dull to me. (Now, could I have just been imagining it? Maybe. But perception is reality or something like that.)

For example, I have felt less and less of a need to wear base makeup. My go-to cc cream is the Amore Pacific Color Correcting Cushion: it is sheer coverage that just covers the little redness that still creeps into my cheeks. This was one of my main goals for my skincare–to feel like I could use less foundational makeup. For the past few weeks, I haven’t even been using blush, either. (Sorry, my wonderful Tarte blushes. I still love you!) My skin just has a healthy glow.

I really noticed the difference when I started going back through the older pictures on my phone. Even just a few months ago my skin didn’t look as radiant or healthy.

So, all this for a healthy glow? Can that really justify the price?

Here’s where I’ll point out that skincare is kind of my hobby. Plus, given my skin goals of more radiant skin that allows me to feel comfortable going without base makeup, I feel ok justifying the enormous price tag. However, I realize that neither of these things apply to most readers of the blog, so this may be one of those products you just want to admire from afar.

If you do want to try this or end up liking it but can’t buy the bottle, it doesn’t have to be pricey. You can purchase the samples (on eBay or from sites like TesterKorea or Sweet Korea) and use those. It’s so much cheaper. I actually bought foil samples and decanted them into a brown bottle for awhile. It worked fine.


So, will I buy this product again?

Rating Scale: 

  • Did you not read the review? Yes, of course. I will spend all of my money on this product!
  • Yes. I enjoy this product enough to purchase again in the future, especially if it’s on sale.
  • Meh. Maybe. I mean, I bet there are other, better things out there. I’d use it if someone gave it to me.
  • No. I won’t use this again and will probably bad-mouth it to others.
  • Hahahahaha. Nope. Noooooooope. Not even if you paid me.

The Verdict: Did you not read the review? Yes, of course. I will spend all of my money on this product! [Addendum: BUT I WILL ONLY PURCHASE IT IN THE BOTTLE WHEN IT’S ON SALE!]

And I have.


Where can you buy the bottle:

Sweet Corea: ($80/90ml)

Jolse: ($66/60ml)


Where you can buy samples:

Ebay: Seller baviphat_korea (fast shipping, no fakes)

TesterKorea (Although they’ve been terribly slow getting orders out.)

Sweet Corea  (A great add-on item to a larger order)


What is your skincare indulgence?


5 thoughts on “Review: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum Ex

  1. Just wanted to say I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. I’ve started building my skincare routine and your site has been so helpful. ☺️


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