Topical aminolaevulinic acid-photodynamic therapy for the treatment of acne vulgaris: a study of clinical efficacy and mechanism of action

Br J Dermatol. 2004 Sep;151(3):616-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2004.06110.x.


Background: Acne affects 83-95% of 16-year-olds of both sexes, and many seek help from a clinician. Emerging problems with conventional acne treatments, specifically antibiotic resistance of Propionibacterium acnes and fears over the safety and tolerance of oral isotretinoin, create a demand for novel treatment modalities in acne.

Objectives: To study the efficacy of aminolaevulinic acid-photodynamic therapy (ALA-PDT) in the treatment of acne and to identify the mode of action, looking specifically at the effects on surface numbers of P. acnes and on sebum excretion.

Methods: Ten patients (nine men and one woman, age range 16-40 years) with mild to moderate acne on their backs were recruited. Each patient's back was marked with four 30-cm2 areas of equal acne severity. Each site was then randomly allocated to either ALA-PDT treatment, light alone, ALA alone or an untreated control site. At baseline, numbers of inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions were counted, sebum excretion measured by Sebutapes (CuDerm, Dallas, TX, U.S.A.) and surface P. acnes swabs performed. ALA cream (20% in Unguentum Merck) was applied under occlusion to the ALA-PDT and ALA alone sites for 3 h. Red light from a diode laser was then delivered to the ALA-PDT and light alone sites (635 nm, 25 mW cm(-2), 15 J cm(-2)). Each patient was treated weekly for 3 weeks. At each visit acne lesion counts were performed and 3 weeks following the last treatment sebum excretion rates and P. acnes swabs were repeated.

Results: There was a statistically significant reduction in inflammatory acne lesion counts from baseline after the second treatment at the ALA-PDT site but not at any of the other sites. No statistically significant reduction in P. acnes numbers or sebum excretion was demonstrated at any sites including the ALA-PDT site.

Conclusions: ALA-PDT is capable of clinically improving acne. An alternative mode of action for ALA-PDT other than direct damage to sebaceous glands or photodynamic killing of P. acnes is suggested from the results of this study.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy*
  • Acne Vulgaris / microbiology
  • Acne Vulgaris / pathology
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aminolevulinic Acid / therapeutic use*
  • Back
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photochemotherapy / adverse effects
  • Photochemotherapy / methods*
  • Photosensitizing Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Propionibacterium acnes / drug effects
  • Propionibacterium acnes / isolation & purification
  • Propionibacterium acnes / radiation effects
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sebum / metabolism
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Photosensitizing Agents
  • Aminolevulinic Acid