Photoradiation therapy with porphyrins and light offers an alternative approach to the management of certain types of cancer. The mechanism of tissue destruction mediated by this modality is poorly understood. In this study, epidermal microsomes incubated in vitro with Photofrin-I (Pf-I) and Photofrin-II (Pf-II) followed by exposure to radiation (∼400 nm) resulted in increased (180%) NADPH-supported (enzymatic) as well as ADP/iron-supported (140%) (nonenzymatic) lipid peroxidative damage as measured by malondialdehyde formation. Lipid peroxidation by Pf-I and Pf-II was found to be differentially affected by quenchers of singlet oxygen (2,5-dimethylfuran, histidine, β-carotene, ascorbic acid, and sodium azide), superoxide anion (superoxide dismutase), and the hydroxyl radical (sodium benzoate, mannitol, and ethanol). Catalase, a quencher of hydrogen peroxide, afforded significant protection only against Pf-II-enhanced lipid peroxidative damage while it had little effect against the Pf-I-mediated reaction. Deuterium oxide, which is known to increase the half-life of singlet oxygen, was found to enhance Pf-I-mediated lipid peroxidation but produced insignificant effects upon Pf-II-mediated photosensitization. Our results indicate that Pf-I and Pf-II, which are employed for the photodynamic therapy of malignant tumors, evoke membrane damage by generating different reactive oxygen species. The Pf-I-mediated photodestruction mainly involves a type II mechanism via singlet oxygen formation, whereas Pf-II-mediated photodestruction preferentially involves a type I mechanism by generating superoxide anions and hydroxyl radicals. Our data indicate that tumor necrosis evoked by porphyrins and light is likely due to the generation of reactive oxygen species. © 1988.