Photodynamic therapy (PDT) for skin cancer

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses laser or light sources combined with a light-sensitive drug to destroy cancer cells.

What is photodynamic therapy (PDT)?

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses laser or light sources with light-sensitive drugs to destroy cancer cells. For skin cancer, it is mainly used for superficial basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) and Bowen’s disease. PDT can be helpful if the skin cancer has developed directly over bone, such as on the shins or hands.

Having photodynamic therapy (PDT) for skin cancer

Before treatment, the doctor or nurse may remove any scabs from the area. Then they put a cream that contains a light-sensitive drug onto the area. They usually cover this with a dressing. You then wait for around 3 hours before having the light treatment. This allows the cream to soak into the layers of the skin.

Next, the doctor or nurse cleans the area. Then they shine a special light directly onto your skin. The light treatment usually lasts between 8 and 45 minutes, depending on the light source they use. Some people may find they get a stinging or burning feeling in the treatment area. Tell your doctor or nurse if you are uncomfortable. They can give you something to help.

After this, they put a dressing over the area to cover it and protect it from light. This stays on for up to 48 hours after your treatment. Your doctor or nurse will give you instructions about this before you leave hospital.

After having PDT for skin cancer

After having PDT, a crust usually forms over the treated area. This crust falls off naturally after a few weeks, leaving the healed, new skin underneath.

You may need 2 sessions spread 1 to 2 weeks apart. Your doctor or nurse will explain how you will have the treatment and how many sessions you may need.

We have more information about photodynamic therapy (PDT).

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our skin cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) NICE pathways: Skin Cancer Treatment overview. (updated 2020) 

    Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Sunlight exposure: risks and benefits. NICE guideline [NG34] Published:2016.

    British Journal of Dermatology. British Association of Dermatologists guidelines for the management of people with cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. 2020.

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Cemiplimab for treating metastatic or locally advanced cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma [TA592] Published: 07 August 2019. 

    BMJ Best Practice. Overview of Skin Cancer. (updated 2019)

    British Association of Dermatologists. Service Guidance and Standards for Mohs Micrographic Surgery (MMS). 2020.


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor James Larkin, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

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