Lightweight and quick-absorbing
Enhances absorption of other skincare products
Multitasks as a serum-essence hybrid
Not Byrdie Clean
A bit drying
May not be potent enough for some
Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum
We put the Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum to the test after receiving a complimentary sample from the brand. Keep reading for our full product review.
If I had to rank my top skincare concerns in order from most to least pressing, I’d rank fine lines and aging number one, followed by dryness and dullness. So when I was offered to test the Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum—a cult-favorite K-beauty elixir that promises to hydrate, brighten, and revitalize the skin—I jumped at the chance.
Formulated with five storied Asian herbs hand-selected by a team of lab researchers back in 1997, this serum-essence hybrid promises to hydrate, revitalize, and brighten the skin while smoothing fine lines and priming your skin for additional products. Naysayers say results are minimal, while fans of the serum claim it brightens, tightens, and moisturizes while boosting the efficiency of their entire skincare routine. Ahead, find my unfiltered review of this fan-favorite K-beauty product, from scent and application to results.
Best for: Most skin types, especially for those concerned with aging or dryness.
Uses: A twice-daily essence that brightens, hydrates, and revitalizes skin while fighting signs of aging and improving the absorption of additional skincare products.
Byrdie Clean? No; contains BHT and PEGs.
Potential allergens: Not likely
Hero ingredient: Jaum activator, a blend of five Korean herbs that works to balance, hydrate, and brighten skin while reducing signs of aging.
About the brand: Sulwhasoo is a highly respected luxury Korean beauty brand that’s been churning out innovative, best-selling skincare products since the 1960s. Building from ancient Korean herbal medicine, Sulwhasoo products are designed to balance and replenish the skin with thoroughly researched, hand-selected natural ingredients.
About My Skin: Sensitive and acne-prone with a touch of winter eczema
With year-round hormonal acne and wintertime eczema, my skin really runs the gamut between oily and dry. Naturally, I’m pretty picky about what I add to my skincare routine, since the wrong serum, mask, or moisturizer can incite a breakout of acne or eczema, depending on the time of year. Overall my skin is happiest when I stick to the basics—it doesn’t react well to super strong serums, masks, or moisturizers and prefers to be left alone. Generally, I use a gentle cleanser, a prescription acne medication, a few gentle serums once or twice a week, and a touch of lightweight moisturizer.
The Ingredients: An herbal powerhouse plus stabilizing alcohol
Sulwhasoo's First Care Activating Serum boasts the brand’s hero complex: the Jaum activator. This blend has been refined over the course of 20-plus years and includes five carefully selected Korean medicinal herbs: sacred lotus, white lily, peony, Solomon’s seal, and adhesive rehmannia. These herbs are said to brighten, hydrate, soften, and smooth the skin, in addition to slowing signs of aging. The brand has updated and improved the formula five times now, with its most recent iteration released in early 2021. It now contains a higher percentage of the above medicinal herbs, giving the already lauded formula an anti-aging boost.
On the downside, denatured alcohol is second on the ingredient list, followed by synthetic fragrances and fragrancing compounds like citronellol, geraniol, limonene, and linalool toward the bottom (these are also found in many essential oils). However, alcohol is often added to herb-heavy skincare products to stabilize the extracts and enhance absorption. In fact, alcohol is a featured ingredient in many Sulwhasoo products.
The Scent: A bit overpowering
Thanks to the synthetic fragrance and additional fragrance compounds, the scent of this serum really hits you in the face—it’s very herbaceous and reminds me of an essential oil blend. I’m personally not a fan of the smell and prefer more subtle, natural scents or even fragrance-free products to minimize the risk of irritation. On the bright side, the scent does dissipate quickly as the product melts into the skin.
The Feel: Lightweight and incredibly absorbent
It’s important to note that Sulwhasoo's First Care Activating Serum is a serum-essence hybrid—it’s designed to be used immediately after cleansing to balance your complexion and improve the absorption of subsequent skincare products, but it’s dubbed a serum due to the potent herbal ingredients. The golden elixir is lightweight and runny; it melts quickly into the skin, dries to the touch within minutes, and leaves zero residue behind, which is a huge win. The brand recommends warming two to three pumps of the serum in your hands and gently pressing it into your cheeks, forehead, and nose until absorbed.
The Results: Definitely improves product absorption
There’s a camp of people online who don’t really understand the hype behind this product, and I’m bummed to admit that I’m one of them. Chalk it up to my borderline boring skincare routine or my lack of experience with the K-beauty approach, but I don’t feel like this serum did much for my skin on its own. Oddly enough, I found it a bit drying, and I didn’t notice any brightening, anti-aging or smoothing effects after weeks of use.
With that said, I do think this serum softened my skin, and it definitely improved the absorption of subsequent products. I typically followed up with a dropper of Barbara Sturm’s Hyaluronic Serum and a touch of my SkinCeuticals daily moisturizer, and my skin definitely felt more hydrated and bouncy than normal. But considering I’m not a person that layers on multiple skincare products every day (I have to keep things bare-bones to keep acne at bay), I don’t think I’d be likely to purchase this product.
The Value: A bit pricey
Overall, the ingredients list is impressive—Sulwhasoo's First Care Activating Serum contains potent nourishing herbal extracts that definitely explain the higher price tag. But because I feel that it merely enhances the efficiency of other skincare products, I personally feel that it’s a bit on the steep side. Depending on your skin, though, you may have a different experience, and this serum-essence hybrid definitely seems to be worth it for those who sing its praises.
Similar Products: You've got options
Missha MISA Geum Sul Rejuvenating Essence: Formulated with oriental herbal ingredients like fermented wild ginseng water and fermented antler & reishi mushroom, this essence ($40) promises to smooth fine lines and wrinkles while rejuvenating skin. Like Sulwhasoo's First Care Activating Serum, it contains licorice root extract and honey and is designed to be the first step in your routine post-cleanse.
Hanskin Hyaluron Skin Essence: This best-selling, fragrance-free essence ($25) boasts hundreds of glowing reviews. It’s infused with incredibly moisturizing ingredients, including glycerin, hydrolyzed collagen, and a form of hyaluronic acid called sodium hyaluronate.
Because this product primes your face and improves the absorption of subsequent products, I understand why people with an extensive skincare routine love it. But because I’m more of a "cleanse, moisturize, and go" type of person, I don’t think I’m the target consumer for this. I would consider adding it to my routine to boost my favorite serums if it were cheaper, but at $89, I don’t think it’s for me. That being said, it's a great primer for product absorption and can definitely be worth it if it matches your budget and goals.
- Product Name First Care Activating Serum
- Product Brand Sulwhasoo
- Price $89
- Weight 2 oz.
- Full Ingredient List Water / Aqua / Eau, Alcohol Denat., Butylene Glycol, Betaine, 1, 2-Hexanediol, Bis-Peg-18, Methyl Ether Dimethyl Silane, Glyceryl Polymethacrylate, Carbomer, Peg-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Tromethamine, Propanediol, Glyceryl Caprylate, Juglans Regia (Walnut) Seed Extract, Dextrin, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Extract, Scutellaria Baicalensis Root Extract, Fragrance / Parfum, Ethylhexylglycerin, Adenosine, Limonene, Methyl Trimethicone, Disodium Edta, Xanthan Gum, Cellulose Gum, Carrageenan, Honey / Mel / Miel, Madecassoside, Rehmannia Glutinosa Root Extract, Pentylene Glycol, Ophiopogon Japonicus Root Extract, Paeonia Lactiflora Root Extract, Lilium Candidum Bulb Extract, Linalool, Lycium Chinense Fruit Extract, Polygonatum Odoratum Rhizome Extract, Biosaccharide Gum-1, Propylene Glycol, Ziziphus Jujuba Fruit Extract, Nelumbo Nucifera Flower Extract, Pueraria Lobata Root Extract, Natto Gum, Glycyrrhiza Uralensis (Licorice) Root Extract, Prunus Mume Fruit Extract, Citronellol, Citral, Geraniol, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Bht, Citric Acid, Lentinus Edodes Extract, Tocopherol, Hydrolyzed Soybean Extract, Paeonia Albiflora Root Extract, Zingiber Officinale (Ginger) Root Extract.