Light-activated, photosensitizer-based therapies have been established as safe modalities of tumour ablation for numerous cancer indications. Two main approaches are available: photodynamic therapy, which results in localized chemical damage in the target lesions, and photothermal therapy, which results in localized thermal damage. Whereas the administration of photosensitizers is a key component of photodynamic therapy, exogenous photothermal contrast agents are not required for photothermal therapy but can enhance the efficiency and efficacy of treatment. Over the past decades, great strides have been made in the development of phototherapeutic drugs and devices as cancer treatments, but key challenges have restricted their widespread clinical use outside of certain dermatological indications. Improvements in the tumour specificity of photosensitizers, achieved through targeting or localized activation, could provide better outcomes with fewer adverse effects, as could combinations with chemotherapies or immunotherapies. In this Review, we provide an overview of the current clinical progress of phototherapies for cancer and discuss the emerging preclinical bioengineering approaches that have the potential to overcome challenges in this area and thus improve the efficiency and utility of such treatments.