If you are somewhat of a skin care obsessive like I am, you will have likely seen these cult-y serums floating around the internet. There are some that are very well known (yet have such devoted followers I’d still call it a “cult”) and some that are more niche and also dearly beloved by a die-hard group. I tried a few of these to see if they lived up to the hype.
First, a little about my face. My skin is naturally dry, and that’s what I suffer from most; I get occasional eczema on my hands and dry patches around my mouth in the morning. Recently, it’s become a little more combination skin, because my cheek area started breaking out while I was working in China. Throughout the time I was using these products, my skin had to deal with a challenging, changing environment–from pollution irritation in Shanghai to changing temperature quickly when I went on vacation in Zimbabwe, and finally back to Boston, MA, USA.
Even then, I’ve been in this game for a while so I always have reasonable expectations. For my dry skin, I want a serum that boosts my moisturizer at least, soothes after exfoliation, and makes my skin feel hydrated. Over time, if I see a difference in the brightness or clarity of my skin, that’s a plus, but the most important thing for me is hydration–because I won’t be able to use something everyday if it is not hydrating. This is the essence/serum step, after all.
I tried 4 essences and serums:
- SK-II Facial Treatment Essence
- Cosrx Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
- Peach & Lily Glass Skin Serum
- Whal Myung Su Skin Elixir
…and I used at least 1 full bottle of each of them before writing this review.
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence
tl;dr: overpriced and ineffective IMHO.
I was lucky (and unlucky) in that I was working for 3 months in China last year. My time there coincided with China’s 11/11 shopping day, where a lot of deals went up and many items were on sale. I snagged a less expensive SK-II discovery set and got a set of trial-sized bottles. It was ¥690 for the whole set, so around $100, typically the cost of the FTE alone.
I’m sorry to say that I was thoroughly unimpressed. For what is normally a few hundred bucks when full-size and full-price, my skin had better be flawless after use of the SK-II system, but other than being a little bit hydrating (not even impressively hydrating at that) I didn’t feel like the SK-II system did anything. My Shanghai-pollution-induced acne was still there, red and irritated (so not even soothed into mild remission) and my face was still struggling with all the different environments where I was traveling. I didn’t expect a ton given the circumstances, but even then, I have to say I was rather disappointed. (but again–everyone’s skin is different, it just didn’t work for me)
Ignoring price, it was just okay. The Facial Treatment Essence did not perform better than the Cosrx Power Essence for me, and given that it is many times the price of the Cosrx one, I will definitely not be repurchasing.
I guess the most annoying part is that SK-II often claims that some people use only this essence after cleansing as their entire skin care regimen, and that it treats acne. I found the first claim hard to believe, and the second false outright.
The bottle is pretty though–currently using it to hold safflower oil for my hair, which is why it’s a yellow color in the photo rather than the clear FTE serum.
Peach & Lily Glass Skin Serum
tl;dr: Kinda inconclusive, but meh…
I used Peach & Lily’s Glass Skin Serum in place of my usual The Ordinary Niacinamide and Hyaluronic Acid duo. I think the level of irritation and acne I was trying to fix while back in the U.S. might have masked any of the benefits of the Peach & Lily serum, as I didn’t feel like it helped much. That said, I do think each application was hydrating enough, it wasn’t terribly overpriced at around $30-something, and maybe if I repurchased it I would notice the complexion benefits a little more now that I’ve properly dealt with my pollution acne.
That said, I wouldn’t say it lives up to the hype.
Cosrx Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
tl;dr: buy this instead of SK-II
This is my second or third bottle of the Cosrx Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence. It was part of my regimen early on, during my first foray into serious skin care, and I found that it does exactly what it says it does and no more. Some people claim the Power Essence is acne fighting, my response to that is maybe for some whiteheads, but unlikely for any real acne. But otherwise, it’s an essence and fits in great into the “Essence” step of a routine. It prepares your face to absorb your other serums or treatments (mine are usually The Ordinary serums), and adds a nice hydrating layer that will help your moisturizer last a few more hours before you feel like reapplying (if you have dry skin like me). And it’s like, $20, and lasts me about 2-3 months, which is pretty great. I will probably continue to buy this until they stop making it.
Whal Myung Su Skin Elixir
tl;dr: honestly, new holy grail for dry skin
I was very lucky with this because I got a steeply discounted 2 for 1 deal on Taobao while I was in Shanghai. Normally $58 each in the US it was a mere ¥299 or about $43 for two of them (only 21.50 each!!). After verifying that it was not secretly face-burning acid or a mysterious counterfeit, I decided that this was the best deal ever in my whole life. I kind of wish I had bought two more and put them in my fridge at home to stave off expiration. I especially wish that now that I’m back home and like it so much. I first discovered this serum from this Strategist article.
Whal Myung is the only serum/essence I’ve ever tried where I see an immediate difference after applying it. A royal Korean blend of oils and extracts, it’s not as heavy as a true facial oil, and not as empty as a watery essence. Instead, it’s somewhere in-between, and I find that sometimes my face won’t feel dry for a full day after applying this (a very rare occurrence for me!)
While it doesn’t fight acne, it was helpful after I attacked some cystic breakouts with (another holy grail) The Ordinary Peeling Solution and a little benzoyl peroxide, because it hydrated, protected, and soothed the area, allowing it to heal. Even with a more premium price, I will still likely repurchase this after my (now second) bottle runs out. The first bottle lasted me about 3 months and I was being rather liberal with it, so I feel like it’s worth it. Especially in the summertime, when it seems to cure that weird summertime dry skin feeling I get–my face doesn’t feel hydrated even though it’s hot, humid, and sweaty. I’ll put on this and sunscreen and be good for a day. Friends that have stayed over and used this ask me about it.
And best of all, after applying, your face looks bright, hydrated, and healthy. I think the oil-extract blend is what causes this, giving you that dewy, plump skin glow.