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How Does Photodynamic Therapy for Acne Work & What are Its Advantages & Disadvantages

Photodynamic therapy is a type of treatment that has gained popularity in recent times as being effective for acne. Photodynamic therapy makes use of medications known as photosensitizers to boost the effectiveness of a certain light-based skin treatment procedure. Photodynamic therapy is a form of light therapy, also known as phototherapy, and it has been found to be effective in treating severe cases of acne that do not respond to other treatment types. Here’s looking at photodynamic therapy for acne and how it can help you.

What is Photodynamic Therapy?

Photodynamic therapy is a type of light therapy or phototherapy that is being used to treat acne, especially in severe cases that have not responded to other treatments. Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is also believed to be effective in treating other types of skin conditions, including skin infections, sun-damaged skin, and even precancerous cells. (1,2)

A review of over 70 studies showed that when used for treating acne, Photodynamic therapy shows favorable results, especially in those people who do not respond well to oral or topical treatment. However, the results are not visible immediately, and it may take a few sessions for the benefits of photodynamic therapy for acne to become visible. People with more severe types of acne have been found to experience the most improvements from the use of Photodynamic therapy.(3) Results of this type of treatment are usually semi-permanent, but they do tend to last for a couple of months or sometimes even longer. Since photodynamic therapy is a relatively new form of treatment for acne and other skin conditions, the long-term effects of Photodynamic therapy are still not known.

How Does Photodynamic Therapy For Acne Work?

Photodynamic therapy works on three basic components, which are:

  • A photosensitizer
  • A light source
  • Supply of oxygen

Photosensitizers are solutions that are applied topically and cause specific types of abnormal cells to manufacture light-absorbing molecules that are known as porphyrins. This change lets the light treatment target any abnormal cells that are causing the acne. The use of photosensitizers helps separate Photodynamic therapy from other types of phototherapy.

To begin with, a topical photosensitizer is applied. After the application, a medical light source is focused on the skin in order to activate the photosensitizer. This light source is usually known to provide blue light, red light, or in some cases, an intense pulsed light (IPL) might be used. Your doctor will decide what is the best light source for your particular case. Combined with the presence of oxygen and the photosensitizer, the light used helps destroy the acne cells and any bacteria on the skin.(4,5)

Photodynamic therapy for acne also works because it reduces the size and activity of the sebaceous glands on the skin, which are the oil-producing glands. Inflammation and over activity of these glands are known to contribute to the development of acne.

Does Photodynamic Therapy Work for Acne?

Photodynamic therapy has been found to be more effective for treating inflammatory acne instead of non-inflammatory acne. Certain studies have found that participants experienced a whopping 68 percent decrease in their inflammatory acne lesions within a period of 12 weeks following treatment by photodynamic therapy as compared to a control group. However, there was no reduction observed in the number of non-inflammatory lesions.(6)

Other studies have shown that inflamed lesions went down by over 70 percent in a period of 16 weeks from the start of photodynamic therapy.(7) However, it must be noted that a variety of light sources, photosensitizers, and other treatment variables were used in the studies. Due to this, a research review carried out in 2016 recommended that certain standard guidelines need to be developed and tested to determine the actual effectiveness of PDT therapy in the treatment of acne.(8)

Cost of Photodynamic Therapy for Acne

The costs of photodynamic therapy vary significantly depending on numerous factors, one of which is the severity of your acne as well as the part of the country where you are undergoing treatment. Photodynamic therapy for acne can cost anywhere between $100 to $400 or more for one session. Up to five sessions of Photodynamic therapy might be required at one time to bring about a reduction in acne.

It is important to keep in mind that the results of PDT for acne are not permanent, and you will need follow-up sessions to control the symptoms of acne in the long term. You may also need to spend on post-treatment skincare products, which cost extra. You should also be aware that most insurance companies do not provide coverage for photodynamic therapy.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Photodynamic Therapy for Acne

Photodynamic therapy is known to offer certain benefits for treating acne that other therapies don’t have. The advantages of PDT for treating acne include the following:

  • It kills any acne-causing bacteria on the skin.
  • It affects only the targeted cells, thus helping maintain skin integrity.
  • It helps face old acne scars.
  • It reduces the size and activity of the sebaceous glands.
  • It does not cause scarring.
  • It treats other skin conditions as well that tend to occur alongside acne, such as rosacea and age spots.
  • It can be used in combination with medication if needed.

Another important advantage of Photodynamic therapy is that there is no need for antibiotics or oral retinoids like Accutane. This has made photodynamic therapy a sustainable treatment for people who are unable to take these medications. Photodynamic therapy is especially helpful for people who have severe acne or those whose acne has not benefited from other treatments.

Like any other form of treatment, there can be some drawbacks to using photodynamic therapy for treating acne. Some of the adverse effects of Photodynamic therapy for acne include:

  • It may cause peeling skin.
  • It causes mild to moderate pain.
  • It causes redness on the skin.
  • It can cause crusting of the skin.
  • It may sometimes cause itching, swelling, or tightness of the skin.
  • In some rare cases, it may cause a flare-up of your acne.

These side effects are usually most intense in the 48 hours after undergoing treatment, but they typically subside within a week after treatment.


The sebaceous glands on the skin excrete oil or sebum that lubricates the skin, protecting it from microbes. However, people with acne tend to have overactive and larger sebaceous glands. Reducing the activity of these sebaceous glands can help reduce acne, though the long-term effects of using photodynamic therapy for reducing sebum production are not yet known. At the same time, people with porphyrin allergies, lupus, or a rare type of blood disorder known as porphyria that causes increased sensitivity to light must avoid photodynamic therapy. In some rare cases, some people may get an allergic reaction to the photosensitizing solution. Remember that you will need at least two to five sessions of photodynamic therapy to achieve optimal results.


  1. Sakamoto, F.H., Lopes, J.D. and Anderson, R.R., 2010. Photodynamic therapy for acne vulgaris: a critical review from basics to clinical practice: part I. Acne vulgaris: when and why consider photodynamic therapy?. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 63(2), pp.183-193.
  2. Boen, M., Brownell, J., Patel, P. and Tsoukas, M.M., 2017. The role of photodynamic therapy in acne: an evidence-based review. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 18(3), pp.311-321.
  3. Ma, L., Xiang, L.H., Yu, B., Yin, R., Chen, L., Wu, Y., Tan, Z.J., Liu, Y.B., Tian, H.Q., Li, H.Z. and Lin, T., 2013. Low-dose topical 5-aminolevulinic acid photodynamic therapy in the treatment of different severity of acne vulgaris. Photodiagnosis and photodynamic therapy, 10(4), pp.583-590.
  4. Wan, M.T. and Lin, J.Y., 2014. Current evidence and applications of photodynamic therapy in dermatology. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology.
  5. Kalka, K., Merk, H. and Mukhtar, H., 2000. Photodynamic therapy in dermatology. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 42(3), pp.389-413.
  6. Wiegell, S.R. and Wulf, H.C., 2006. Photodynamic therapy of acne vulgaris using methyl aminolaevulinate: a blinded, randomized, controlled trial. British Journal of Dermatology, 154(5), pp.969-976.
  7. Akaraphanth, R., Kanjanawanitchkul, W. and Gritiyarangsan, P., 2007. Efficacy of ALA‐PDT vs blue light in the treatment of acne. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 23(5), pp.186-190.
  8. Keyal, U., Bhatta, A.K. and Wang, X.L., 2016. Photodynamic therapy for the treatment of different severity of acne: A systematic review. Photodiagnosis and Photodynamic Therapy, 14, pp.191-199.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:January 1, 2023

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