Lipid peroxidation was photosensitized in egg phosphatidylcholine (EPC) liposomes by hematoporphyrin (HP), hematoporphyrin derivative (HpD) and uroporphyrin I (Uro-I). Photosensitization by HP was type II via singlet oxygen (/sup 1/O/sub 2/) for the monomeric and dimeric states and type I for aggregated HP. Uro-I was an efficient type II /sup 1/O/sub 2/ photosensitizer. The HpD fraction enriched in the active biological component (HpD-A) was a type II /sup 1/O/sub 2/ photosensitizer at high and low concentrations. The spectral differences between HpD-A in buffer and solubilized in small EPC liposomes are attributed to a conformation change of a key dimer constituent from a folded to a planar geometry. The implications of the results for the action mechanism in photoradiation therapy of tumors with these porphyrins are discussed. 73 references, 1 figure, 5 tables.