Merocyanine-540 is currently in use in experimental protocols for the treatment of leukemia and neuroblastomas. The mechanism of cellular phototoxicity of this membrane binding sensitizer is unexplored. We have used sodium azide and deuterium oxide to examine the role of singlet oxygen in photomodification of cell membranes in a photohemolysis assay. The effects of these agents on the photomodification process were separated from the effects on the ion fluxes leading to lysis (lytic phase). Azide significantly inhibited photohemolysis sensitized by merocyanine-540 or rose bengal. The inhibition was equal for both sensitizers. Azide had no effect on the lytic phase. Deuterium oxide significantly potentiated lysis with both sensitizers to approximately the same degree. There was little effect of deuterium oxide when added after illumination. The results indicate that singlet oxygen plays a significant role in membrane photomodification sensitized by both rose bengal and merocyanine-540.