Abstract Cephalosporins are widely used veterinary and human antibiotics, but their environmental fate and impacts are still unclear. We studied degradation of four cephalosporins (cefradine, cefuroxime, ceftriaxone, and cefepime) from each generation in the surface water and sediment of Lake Xuanwu, China. The four cephalosporins degraded abiotically in the surface water in the dark with half-lives of 2.7–18.7 d, which were almost the same as that in sterilized surface water. Under exposure to simulated sunlight, the half-lives of the cephalosporins decreased significantly to 2.2–5.0 d, with the maximal decrease for ceftriaxone from 18.7 d in the dark to 4.1 d under the light exposure. Effects of dissolved organic matter (DOM) and nitrate on photodegradation of the cephalosporins were compound-specific. While DOM (5 mg L −1) stimulated the photodegradation of only cefradine (by 9%) and cefepime (by 34%), nitrate (10 μM) had effects only on cefepime (stimulation by 13%). Elimination rates of the cephalosporins in oxic sediment (half-lives of 0.8–3.1 d) were higher than in anoxic sediment (half-lives of 1.1–4.1 d), mainly attributed to biodegradation. The data indicate that abiotic hydrolysis (for cefradine, cefuroxime, and cefepime) and direct photolysis (for ceftriaxone) were the primary processes for elimination of the cephalosporins in the surface water of the lake, whereas biodegradation was responsible for the elimination of the cephalosporins in the sediment. Further studies are needed on chemical structure, toxicity, and persistence of transformation products of the cephalosporins in the environment.