Sulwhasoo was high on my “must-get-while-in-Malaysia”-list. As well as SK-II and – if I could afford – History of Whoo. I must say, my interest in Korean/Asian beauty has faded quite a lot in the past few years. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Odile Monod, who shares her knowledge of Korean Hanbang luxury skincare, that my interest resparked. Call me whatever, but something about the packaging, price, and formulas intrigued me. It felt exotic, mature, and new to me. Odile often put Sulwhasoo as the cheaper version of History of Whoo (which is like the Asian equivalent to La Mer).
So during my few days in Malaysia, I was on a scavenger hunt for a little travel set (that was supposed to cost 199RM) I had seen on Sephora MY. To my despair, it seemed like the travel set was only available online. Fortunately, the girl working at the Sulwhasoo counter at Parkson Elite in Pinang whipped together a similar set for me for the same cost. I got the travel size (30ml) of their best-selling First Care Activating Serum that had just come out in a sixth version and packaging, plus a few samples. I was forever grateful. 🙏🏼
Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum VI
This product is intriguing, but it can be a bit confusing to use. It’s marketed as a “prep-serum”. Unlike a regular serum, this is supposed to be applied as the first step directly after cleansing, before your toner and serum. The properties of the serum are supposed to prepare the skin for optimal absorption of all your other products. The application steps go like this:
You can use an emulsion and a cream on top in the same routine if your skin is feeling particularly parched. Or you could use the emulsion during the day and apply the cream at night. Or just stick to one. Spoiler: The emulsion is already quite hydrating, enough for both day and night!
This is going to be more of a rant. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the new look of the First Care Activating Serum. While I’m glad I got the newest version, when I got it, I kind of wish it came in the old packaging. 😅 But hear me out…
I was originally drawn to the brand because of its beautiful packaging with Korean text on it that looked similar to the History of Whoo. I wanted the exotic/royal look that I had not seen elsewhere. It’s clear that the new branding is to accommodate and appeal more to Westerners (and perhaps Gen Z). However, in my humble opinion, they should’ve stayed with the Korean writing on the front.
Sidenote: this rebranding has stirred up a bit of discussion as the brand’s main consumers are women in their 40s and over. Some are upset by the new packaging and direction the brand is taking (like making young k-pop artist Rosé become the brand ambassador) as it’s sort of invalidating their main supporters and fans.
With that said
Not that the new look looks bad. It still has a stunning bottle design that draws inspiration from antique ceramic vases, and its appearance certainly reflects that influence even more so now. Some of the products, especially the Ginseng Renewing-line look drop-dead gorgeous and very luxurious! Not to mention the new Ultimate S-line where the packaging looks like home decor.
But again, I find the look a bit less exotic than its predecessors… Removing the Korean writing to a barely visible stamp on the back feels to me like they’re not proud of their origin. Some of their more expensive products made better use of the Korean writing, carving it into the lids and caps. I hope that with future rebranding they’ll make it more visible again.
Other than that, the bottle has an expensive heaviness to it. And the pump works great at dispensing a good amount. 2 pumps are more than enough for my face and neck.
Although I bought it at the beginning of spring, I did not start using it until the end of summer as I had a few similar products in rotation. I wanted to wait until I could get the “whole Sulwhasoo experience”. And for at least a month I did use all products in order at least once daily.
The First Activating Serum is supposed to be used twice daily, but with its antioxidant content + that I only have 30 ml of this bottle and it’s not cheap, I found that it did its best use in the mornings. During my more strict month of only using Sulwhasoo products, I did dabble with twice daily application. But now if I use it, I generally only reach for it in the mornings.
The serum has a consistency similar to a watery essence. It sinks in quickly into the skin. The moisturizing effect is comparable to that of a toner. In other words, if you have normal to dry skin, you will perhaps want to add another layer of hydration in the form of the Comfort Balancing Water or a hydrating serum. I have been applying it onto a damp face first thing after cleansing as recommended.
I also do agree with what I read from another reviewer that you need to apply the full recommended 2 pumps. Although 1 pump is enough for my small face frame, the hydration efficacy is noticeably reduced as it sinks in so fast.
This contains added fragrance to it but it’s very faint. It has a natural herbal scent that I personally am not a fan of. I rather have things smelling synthetic than herbs and essential oils. But because it fades quickly, it isn’t something that bothers me. The same scent is found throughout the rest of the Essential Comfort-line.
As a Hanbang skincare product, the First Activating Serum has a lot going for it. In addition to the traditional Korean medicinal extracts, the new formula now also has some more contemporary ingredients. With its inclusion of ethyl ascorbic acid (a newer and more stable form of vitamin C), it doubles as your vitamin C serum. I have observed subtle brightening effects, contributing to a more even skin tone with continued use. But perhaps a more notable ingredient is the ginseng extract (which is the new addition in the latest iteration). It is supposed to strengthen the skin barrier while addressing pre-mature visible signs of aging.
I didn’t find this serum to immediately mask fine lines and wrinkles but does impart a sense of increased skin resilience over time. My skin feels more balanced and less reactive than usual. But I also feel that, with these types of luxury products, it isn’t about reversing or even preventing. But about slowing down, aging well, and having the best skin at your age.
I’m still unsure of what I think of it as a stand-alone product. I would sort of compare it to the Shiseido Ultimune Concentrate (review coming soon). Which is also sort of a prep-serum that works on hydration, radiance, barrier strengthening, addressing pre-mature visible signs of aging, and helping the absorption of all your following products. It’s like, if your skin is already in a good place, it’s hard to see any obvious visible results with these types of products. They aren’t retinol and acids. They will work on a cellular level, but their effects won’t be seen until years to come. And they are made to work synergistically with other serums on top.
And I guess, for the price you pay, you might be expecting more. However, I do think that, even with good skin, it is worth investing in a good all-around antioxidant serum. I truly feel like the Sulwhasoo First Care activating serum excels as an antioxidant serum, but it’s important to note that its effects are not instantaneous especially if you’re in your 20s and mid-30s.
Something to also have in mind is that the formula constantly changes. And while the benefits will stay mostly the same, this review will become irrelevant in a year or two. For instance, in earlier iterations, the First Care serum contained silicones which would affect its consistency and feeling on the skin.
Overall, as someone who appreciates a well-rounded antioxidant formula, I can see myself coming back to this one. I think using an all Sulwhasoo-routine worked really great for my skin and this serum gave it something extra that I just can’t put my finger on.
Where To Buy
The next few products I got small samples of. While I can’t speak of their long-term effects I can share my first impression of the texture and feel and whether I’d repurchase a full size.
Sulwhasoo Essential Comfort Balancing Water
I must admit that I found the order of the products to be a bit confusing at first. After you’ve prepped with the First Activating Serum you then go in with your water or toner so to speak. I’m also unsure if it’s even necessary as both this and the First Care serum give hydration. But if you’re feeling dehydrated, adding this will keep your skin well-fed with moisture. It also helps to soothe the skin.
The Sulwhasoo Comfort Balancing Water has about the same quick-absorbing texture as the First Activating Serum. Maybe even a tiny bit runnier? After testing them out I don’t think it’s necessary to own both. I’d focus my money more on the First Activating Serum if I had to choose. Yet, if you want a complete hydrating routine I do feel like there’s something missing those times I’ve skipped the Comfort Balancing Water. It’s like with watery essences, you can’t really put your finger on what they do, but you can feel them doing something.
Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Serum EX
The kit I wanted to get from Sephora MY had the Ginseng Renewing cream but they did not have a sample of it in stock, so instead I was handed four sample sachets of the serum. Considering that the emulsion works as a moisturizer I was happy to have a complete full routine.
Again, I can’t say anything about the more long-term effects of the serum. Short-term, the results were, of course, hydration, softness, and a somewhat more even tone. The Ginseng Renewing Serum has a very nice texture with tiny spheres in it. It sinks in leaving the skin soft and hydrated without any sticky residue. On the Sulwhasoo site they recommend 3 pumps if you have the bottle. But, unless you take it down to your tits, I found that I could do with much less. And so I managed to get three uses out of one sample sachet. The results might’ve been better if I’d used a whole one in one go. But what’s the fun in that…
Considering the amount of concentrated ginseng together with retinol(!) and peptides, it’s a serum I’d like to come back to and try a full-size of. Yes, it’s digging-my-pockets expensive, but it has about everything you want from an antioxidant/well-aging serum! Although not they are not the same thing, the Ginseng Renewing serum is a step up from the First Care Activating Serum if you’re looking for something that actually treats existing signs of aging.
Sulwhasoo Essential Comfort Balancing Emulsion
This is my first time using an emulsion. I had heard of emulsions through the brand Sensai, but always thought it was just a name for a thicker serum or toner. However, an emulsion is actually a moisturizer with a higher water content. And despite its name, you’d think this would sink in quickly and be better suited for oily/combination skin. However, it’s incredibly moisturizing. Not in a heavy way. But it makes the skin feel quite moist in a humid setting.
I didn’t think I’d like it or that it would feel enough for my skin as I tend to prefer regular creams. But this felt really comforting and hydrating in a way I didn’t think a lighter cream would be able to. I came to love this moisturizer and a little goes a long way.
The Essential Comforting Balancing Emulsion from Sulwhasoo is said to suit all skin types. While I can’t speak for all, I do feel like it’s one of those products everyone needs to try for themselves. Its texture and effect made it into one of my top five moisturizers!
A full size will set you back about 72 USD, but you’ll then get 125ml! Which is both unique and generous. And considering you don’t need a lot I think it’s almost a steal! I also see on their site that they’ve upgraded the packaging to include a pump now. Definitely needed. While it’s an emulsion/fluid moisturizer, it does have some viscosity to it that doesn’t make it easy to shake out into your hands. So I’m glad to see they’ve improved on this.