A series of meso-substituted tetra-cationic porphyrins, which have methyl and octyl substituents, was studied in order to understand the effect of zinc chelation and photosensitizer subcellular localization in the mechanism of cell death. Zinc chelation does not change the photophysical properties of the photosensitizers (all molecules studied are type II photosensitizers) but affects considerably the interaction of the porphyrins with membranes, reducing mitochondrial accumulation. The total amount of intracellular reactive species induced by treating cells with photosensitizer and light is similar for zinc-chelated and free-base porphyrins that have the same alkyl substituent. Zinc-chelated porphyrins, which are poorly accumulated in mitochondria, show higher efficiency of cell death with features of apoptosis (higher MTT response compared with trypan blue staining, specific acridine orange/ethidium bromide staining, loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential, stronger cytochrome c release and larger sub-G1 cell population), whereas nonchelated porphyrins, which are considerably more concentrated in mitochondria, triggered mainly necrotic cell death. We hypothesized that zinc-chelation protects the photoinduced properties of the porphyrins in the mitochondrial environment.