Photodynamic Therapy: What Is It, and How Can This Treatment Help You?

Author Picture


Skin problems take a major toll on your stress level, prep time, general health, and overall confidence. Fortunately, a treatment method exists to help you take care of your skin by repairing and protecting it. Photodynamic therapy offers a solution for many conditions and allows you to achieve healthier, happier skin.

What Is Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)?

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is an FDA-approved treatment involving light to help reduce and eradicate specific skin problems. During the procedure, our dermatologists at Dermatology, Surgery, and Cosmetics of Northeast Ohio use a photosensitizing compound (typically aminolevulinic or methyl aminolevulinate) to treat patients.

Conditions That PDT Can Treat

PDT can help treat several different skin conditions and give you clearer, healthier skin that looks great and boosts your confidence. If you suffer from ongoing dermal problems, talk to one of our dermatologists about the right solution for your particular situation.

With photodynamic therapy, you can receive treatment for various conditions, including:

  • Actinic keratosis
  • Bowen’s disease
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Acne
  • Rosacea
  • Sebaceous hyperplasia
  • Photoaging (sun damage)
  • Flat and genital warts

Our dermatologists at Dermatology, Surgery & Cosmetics of Northeast Ohio most often use PDT to treat actinic keratosis (sometimes abbreviated as AK). If you spend long hours exposed to direct sunlight and harmful ultraviolet rays, you could get precancerous lesions (or AKs). These rough, scaly, dry patches on your skin can lead to squamous cell carcinoma without proper treatment.  

What Can You Expect During Photodynamic Therapy?

Photodynamic therapy might sound a bit scary at first. However, we’ve successfully helped many patients over the years, and our dermatologists have received advanced training to perform PDT efficiently. We’ll let you know what to expect and answer any questions you may have before the procedure.

Prior to your treatment session, you’ll need to consult your doctor about PDT. Usually, you can expect the following steps during your procedure:

  • Cleansing. Once you enter the office, a medical assistant will clean your face with acetone. This cleansing process removes any oils and other naturally occurring substances on your skin. 
  • Applying the photosensitizer. After cleaning your face, our medical staff will apply a photosensitizing medication to your skin. Photosensitizers need 45–60 minutes to absorb into the areas we’re trying to treat, such as cancer cells. You can sit back and listen to music or read a magazine during this period.
  • Light treatment. PDT uses red or blue light to treat skin cancer and other skin conditions. These lights activate the photosensitizer to destroy abnormal cells and some of the blood vessels feeding them. During light treatment, you’ll sit in front of a specific light wavelength until the end of the therapy session.

Concerns Related to PDT

A common concern we hear from prospective PDT patients is: “Will PDT hurt?” The answer is both yes and no. The blue light doesn’t heat the skin enough to hurt, but you may experience discomfort from the photosensitizing compound we apply.

You may feel tingling, burning, or stinging during the procedure as we take care of the actinic keratoses. However, these uncomfortable sensations will quickly subside by the end of your treatment session. Your skin may also suffer from redness, swelling, and sunburn-like symptoms.

How Long Does PDT Take?

Photodynamic therapy involves three phases: cleaning the skin, allowing a photosensitizing drug to incubate, and applying light treatment. Blue light treatment takes around 17 minutes, while red light treatment takes about 10 minutes.

You can expect your PDT session to last up to two hours. However, it may take longer if we treat multiple areas.

What Are the Side Effects of Photodynamic Therapy?

You may experience several side effects of photodynamic therapy.

During Therapy

Some patients face significant stinging and burning while undergoing PDT. Although the photosensitizing compound we apply to your skin is essential to PDT and creating healthy skin, it’s not uncommon to feel these sensations during the photosensitizer application or afterward when we perform the light treatment.

However, we can combat these side effects and minimize your discomfort using fans and cooling devices. Some pain is necessary to eliminate precancerous lesions, but we try to reduce this as much as possible.

After Therapy

We also see other side effects for many patients following PDT. These post-therapy side effects include:

  • Redness and peeling. Following PDT, your skin will get red and start peeling for a couple of days. This side effect is normal and is a good indicator that your therapy is working correctly.
  • Blistering sunburns. This skin condition may occur if you expose yourself to sunlight after therapy. Sunny environments and even some indoor lights can further activate the photosensitizing medicine and result in a reaction similar to a bad sunburn.

Are There Limitations to PDT?

If you’re wondering about limitations to PDT, the short answer is yes—photodynamic therapy has a couple of limitations: photosensitizing diseases and skin cancer types.

1. Photosensitizing Diseases

We must be extra careful in treating patients with certain light-sensitive diseases, such as polymorphous light eruption and lupus erythematosus. PDT can sometimes worsen their condition as their body reacts negatively to the light treatment. For this reason, PDT isn’t for everyone and can actually prove harmful to some people.

2. Skin Cancer Types

Another limitation of PDT relates to skin cancer types. Photodynamic therapy usually only treats superficial skin cancers and precancerous conditions like non-invasive squamous cell carcinoma and actinic keratosis. The medication doesn’t penetrate deeply enough for other cancers, so you’ll generally need surgical solutions.

How Do You Take Care of Your Skin After Photodynamic Therapy?

After PDT treatment, you’ll want to take proper care of your skin. You can minimize side effects like rashes and scaling by following these steps:

  • Stay in the shade as much as possible
  • Avoid exposure to direct sunlight
  • Apply sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium oxide
  • Wear a hat, long sleeves, and other protective clothing
  • Use moisturizers like Vaseline

What Will Your Face Look Like After Photodynamic Therapy?

One of the most common questions we hear regarding PDT is, “What will my face look like afterward?” Many patients want the long-lasting effects of healthy skin, but they worry about their appearance in the meantime. We know how it is!

After photodynamic therapy, your face will look red and perhaps scaly. It should start peeling over the next few days as it removes some of the underlying damaged skin. This process often results in smoother, clearer skin.

What Should You Avoid After Photodynamic Therapy?

Sunlight is one thing you’ll want to avoid following PDT treatment. PDT leaves your skin extremely sensitive and vulnerable to burn-like reactions when you expose it to sunlight. Just take a break from your outdoor pool and yard work.

You should also avoid powerful skincare products after PDT. Some types of lotions, oils, creams, and other topicals could hurt your sensitive skin and cause a lot of discomfort. We recommend taking a break from these products to minimize rashes, burning, and stinging. Please only apply products that we recommend.

Find the Best Skincare Treatment for You

Photodynamic therapy helps treat various skin problems and can give you healthier, clearer skin. Our board-certified dermatologists at Dermatology, Surgery & Cosmetics of Northeast Ohio can answer your questions and provide effective PDT treatment. Contact us today to discover if PDT is right for you.

About The Author